That Old Man Looks Like a Soup Chicken!

semicolonWhat a cheap trick! To lure you in with a post title like this one. But stick with me, the old man will come into play a little later.

Today I want to talk to you about The Semi-Colon! See now? You wouldn’t have come here if the title of this post had been: “The Semi-Colon.” You wouldn’t have come here even if the title of this post had been: “The Amazing Semi-Colon!”  Yet, I am not too sure you actually know how to use a semi-colon and that’s why you really need to be here. I mean, what is the purpose of the semi-colon, after all? Does it have a purpose other than drawing out the red pen of thousands of English composition teachers every year, and causing millions of English composition students to break out in stress-related hives? Flies have more purpose than semi-colons, you say? Well, I think we’re all very well aware of that fact. Flies pollinate the cocoa flower, and without flies there would be no chocolate–so yes, of course, flies have more purpose than semi-colons! But semi-colons have a place in this world, too, and particularly in the world of writing. So let’s stop being nervous about them to the point of never using them, and let’s (please!) stop being so unafraid of them that we pepper every sentence with three or four of them at a clip! As a freelance editor, I’ve seen both ends of this bell curve, and I’d like to see you all move a lot closer to center. Let’s get started toward that end, shall we?  😀

IF YOU WANT YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY TO RESPECT YOU, YOU WILL LEARN HOW TO USE SEMI-COLONS CORRECTLY!

All right. I lied. Your friends and family will not respect you more than they do right now if you learn to use semi-colons correctly. They may even begin to respect you less. They may stop inviting you to parties. Or, they might simply ignore you completely, thereby giving you far less respect than a person of your intellectual sensitivity deserves. You might want to save a kitten from a tree, help a little old lady across the street, return your shopping cart to the cart corral once in a while– something–in order to hedge your bets on the respect thing. But you’re a writer, so learn how to use semi-colons regardless of how your family and friends feel about it, okay?  🙂

Let’s begin understanding the semi-colon by discussing what it is NOT.

  • A semi-colon is NOT a period (also known as a “full stop”). Bartholomew had an irritating habit of picking his nose. (STOP!)
  • A semi-colon is NOT a comma (used to show a reader when to pause). Gretchen was so slovenly, (PAUSE…how slovenly was she?) she had a turnip garden growing in her ears! 

What the Semi-Colon IS: 

The semi-colon is a punctuation mark which signals that two independent clauses are being linked together, and that they share a common theme. Oh now, don’t run away just because I used the word clauses!! A CLAUSE is SIMPLY a SENTENCE! Sit back down and pay attention, because you’re going to get this. Just let me phrase it another way: a semi-colon links two independent sentences (clauses) together that are “talking” about the same thing (in other words, they share a common theme). Nothing scary about that. “Uh-huh,” you say, “but what are these terrifying independent sentences of which you speak??” Glad you asked. Independent sentences are sentences that can stand on their own, just as the term implies. That’s all. Not so scary, right?  Think of it this way: we can place a semi-colon between two sentences that could stand on their own, but which are so related that we want one to follow closely on the heels of the other (so that the latter sentence backs up the former). Watch this:

  • Eleanor hates spiders; she was bitten by a large spider when she was a child.

This one sentence uses two independent clauses (sentences). The first clause tells us something about Eleanor (that she hates spiders). The second clause offers a reason for her fear (she was bitten by a spider as a child). These clauses are so closely related that a semi-colon is doing nothing wrong by hanging out between them. However, because the clauses are independent, they could also stand on their own and make perfect sense too:

Eleanor hates spiders. 

Eleanor was bitten by a large spider when she was a child.

 WHERE SEMI-COLONS ARE NOT APPROPRIATE

(1.) Semi-colons are not appropriate when placed where periods should be.

INCORRECT: Bruce had no chance to eat dinner all day; he left work and drove home in the rain. True, the two clauses which make up the sentence are independent clauses, and they are both about Bruce, but they are not terribly related. Bruce’s lack of supper has nothing to do with him leaving work and driving home in the rain. No semi-colon should be used between these clauses–just a plain old period between them is perfectly fine.

CORRECT: Bruce had no chance to eat dinner all day. He left work and drove home in the rain.

(2.)  Semi colons are not appropriate when placed where commas should be. Read the next sentence, pretending it’s dialogue in your novel. One of my clients used a semi-colon in a sentence of dialogue very much like this one, except his sentence wasn’t so rude and didn’t involve fowl of any kind.

INCORRECT: “That old man looks like a soup chicken; I tell ya!” The first part of this sentence is made up of an independent clause. The second part doesn’t come close to being independent. Just look into a mirror and say boldly, “I tell ya!” See? No good. There’s nothing independent about that clause. A comma is the obvious choice here.

CORRECT: “That old man looks like soup chicken, I tell ya!”

The semi-colon is a useful punctuation mark. It alerts us to the fact that (A.) two clauses are being joined in one sentence, and, (B.) they are independent clauses, and, (C.) they are so closely related they could be the same sentence if they really wanted to be.  

 

written by Jean Foster Akin

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