Punctuation and the Semicolon Help
How to Use a Semicolon
- Use a semicolon between closely related independent clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction.
- Use a semicolon to connect independent clauses linked with a conjunctive adverb.
- The semicolon is also used to connect other elements of equal weight. For example, use a semicolon between items in a series when the series contains internal punctuation.
- For clarity, use a semicolon to separate independent clauses that are joined by coordinating conjunctions when the clauses have internal punctuation that might lead to confusion.
We've had extremely cold and wet weather this spring; my annual flowers are a month behind in growth.
The new position makes weekend work mandatory; no one applied for the job.
I can't finish preparing the feast in one day; indeed, I may not be done in three days.
I won't be able to take any time off; however, that doesn't mean you can't.
My territory includes Detroit, Michigan; San Jose, California; and Jacksonville, Florida.
Among the conferees were John Litton, president of the Sun Awning Corporation; Leslie Martin, president of Paragon Computer; and Sue Daley, CEO of Environmental Sciences.
In most cases, the counselor in charge will communicate with the parents; but on weekends, however, if the counselor in charge is not available, Dr. Alper will take that responsibility.
Remember that semicolons are always followed by a lowercase letter, unless that letter begins a proper noun.
Joining Complete Thoughts with a Semicolon
A semicolon is a strong mark of punctuation that, unlike the period, can be used in the middle of a sentence to join two complete thoughts. Semicolons join independent clauses. You may recall that an independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought.
You may recall the quote from John Kennedy's inaugural speech (cited in Chapter 7):
- Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
Obviously, President Kennedy wanted the listener (reader) to fully appreciate how closely related the two thoughts were, that two requests existed simultaneously. In this case, a semicolon achieves this better than a period.
Go back much further to the King James Version of the Bible (1611) at Genesis. Read the first part of the second verse in Genesis:
- "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep…"
In this verse, the semicolon allows the reader to explore and add a deeper meaning to the first clause. The basic idea here is that "… the earth was without form, and void." The next clause, "and darkness was upon the face of the deep," gives the reader further detail, a clearer idea of what the formless earth looked like.
- Two people started this project; only one person remains.
- Bindu has a four-year-old daughter; the child is being raised according to her Indian heritage.
Either half of the Kennedy sentence as well as the preceding sentences could stand independently. Sometimes, however, for variety, we want to join thoughts that are closely related; we use a semicolon to do that. Otherwise, we might have a long series of not-too-interesting short sentences.
Notice that a comma would not work in place of the semicolon in the following sentence. In fact, you would create a common, serious error: the run-on sentence. You cannot separate two complete thoughts with a comma:
- Incorrect: Two people started this project, only one person remains.
You can, however, separate two thoughts with a comma and a conjunction in place of the semicolon.
- Correct: Two people started this project, but only one person remains.
In summary, you can write one sentence three ways, each being correct:
- I don't like the terms of the contract. I will not sign it.
- I don't like the terms of the contract; I will not sign it.
- I don't like the terms of the contract, so I will not sign it.
Remember that you need a complete sentence on both sides of a semicolon:
- Incorrect: While I've read through the complaint once; I'm not ready to sign it.
- Correct: I've read through the complaint once; I'm not ready to sign it.
Which word in the first sentence makes the punctuation incorrect? The word while makes the first half of the sentence an incomplete thought. When you say the first sentence aloud, you want to ask, "What then?" Consequently, you can't use a semicolon. A comma would be correct.
- While I've read through the complaint once, I'm not ready to sign it.
What's wrong with the following sentences?
- Since I'm late already; I won't stop for coffee.
- When the car stopped suddenly; my son was restrained by a seat belt.
- If the seller accepts our offer; we'll be in our new house by June 1st.
The answer to the question asked before the examples is that the first half of each sentence is introduced by a word (i.e., since, when, if) that makes the introductory clause incomplete; it can't stand alone, so the semicolon is incorrect. Insert commas instead.
- Since I'm late already, I won't stop for coffee.
- When the car stopped suddenly, my son was restrained by a seat belt.
- If the seller accepts our offer, we'll be in our new house by June 1st.
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