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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Poor Semicolon

Friday, September 24, was National Punctuation Day. Do you have a favorite punctuation mark? No? Here's what Bill Walsh had to say about the poor semicolon, "The semicolon is an ugly bastard and thus I tend to avoid it..." (from his book, Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print and How to Avoid Them).

Is name-calling really necessary? For a punctuation mark? How do you feel about the semicolon? Would you like it "plutoed" from the world of punctuation?
Many people don't know how to use the semicolon. So, in honor of NPD (National Punctuation Day), I'll teach you how to use it; and you'll never have to avoid it again.

Bill Walsh also calls the semicolon a SUPERCOMMA; now that's an excellent description. A good rule of thumb is to use the semicolon when you need something stronger than a comma or when you have too many commas. Generally, the semicolon helps the reader understand how to read the message correctly.

When a comma's not enough
Independent Clauses 
You can join two sentences (independent clauses) with a semicolon:

People don't know when to use the semicolon; it's the least used punctuation mark.

The sentences need to be related thoughts. For example, a semicolon wouldn't work well in this example: The comma is overused; football season has started.
Independent Clauses With a Conjunctive Adverb
If you add a conjunctive adverb (consequently, however, and furthermore are some common ones) between two sentences, you still need the semicolon. Punctuate the sentence two times--a semicolon before the conjunctive adverb and a comma after it:
People don't know when to use the semicolon; consequently, it's the least used punctuation mark.

When there are too many commas
Independent Clauses With Commas 
When two sentences are joined with a conjunction (and, or, and but are the most common conjunctions), a comma precedes the conjunction. If either sentence contains a comma, the comma before the conjunction is changed to a semicolon:

The comma is the most overused punctuation mark, often being placed where people pause in speech; and the apostrophe is the most misused mark.

A Series With Commas
Use semicolons to separate items in a series when at least one of the items has a comma:

National Punctuation Day will be celebrated in Chicago, Illinois; Seattle, Washington; and San Diego, California.

Are you ready for your "semicolonoscopy" now? (Thank you, Vickie Austin, for that word!)

Please comment on your favorite punctuation mark!

Happy Punctuation Day!