Monday, February 8, 2010

The Versatile Semicolon

Originally uploaded by Adrasteia9
Recently, I took one of those silly FaceBook quizzes entitled, "What Punctuation Mark Are You?" I, apparently, am a semicolon.

I actually took that as a compliment because semicolons are wonderful, versatile little things. Kind of like shelled edamame (which are my current favorite veggies). But, like shelled edamame, if you aren't accustomed to using them, they can seem strange. Sure, we writers are used to periods and exclamation points. But semicolons? How do you use these strange, little things?

A semicolon works much like a period does. That is, it separates two independent clauses. So, for example, below are two independent clauses (clauses that contain a subject and a verb and can stand on their own):

- yesterday, my dog stole my lunch
- today, the cat did the same thing

If you wanted to put these two independent clauses into a single sentence, you could simply add a conjunction:

- Yesterday, my dog stole my lunch, and today the cat did the same thing.

However, you could also use a semicolon.

- Yesterday, my dog stole my lunch; today, the cat did the same thing.

I like semicolons because I think of them as kind of a setup for a punchline. It's as if they are saying, "Here's a sentence...but wait! There's something more." Semicolons just seem to add that extra bit of (very) dry humor to the sentence:

- My kids ate birthday cake for dinner; I nibbled lettuce.
- He couldn't figure out why he'd gotten a speeding ticket; he'd only been going 100 mph.
- Susan didn't mean to hit the neighbor with the rotten tomato; she was aiming for her ex-husband.

One thing to remember: a semicolon links two clauses that somehow relate to each other or build on the same message. Therefore, this is okay:

- The student didn't want to do his homework; he was too tired.

But this sentence is not:

- The student didn't want to do his homework; the woman went to the grocery store and bought soap.

Semicolons are cool! If you don't believe me, check out The Oatmeal.


fairyhedgehog said...

I'm just starting to get the hang of them! I need semi-colons because I tend to write short sentences and I need variety to give my writing more flow.

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