By Deanna Giasson:
The semicolon behaves something like an eccentric aunt; she wreaks havoc when she crops up where she doesn’t belong, and too much of her can get old fast, but in the right setting, she brings everyone together in ways no other piece of punctuation can. Fortunately, while there’s no manual for Auntie Cedent, this versatile piece of punctuation has only a handful of pretty straightforward guidelines.
In some cases, a semicolon acts as a softer version of a period, more closely linking two complete sentences without a need to change the grammar of either sentence. This can be confusing, as the semicolon’s grammatical purpose in this case is almost identical to that of the period; however, the difference lies in how the sentences are perceived. While a period should cleanly end one idea and move the reader to the next sentence, the semicolon highlights important contextual connections between two sentences.
Ex: The final essay is due on the thirteenth; late work is not accepted.
In addition, a semicolon can be used before words and phrases such as however, therefore, that is, for example, etc., when they introduce a complete sentence. This works the same way as the previous semicolon rule: technically, a period would also be correct here. The difference lies again in the content connection between the sentences you’re trying to connect with a semicolon.
Ex: The payment is due tomorrow; however, there is a grace period of three days.
Semicolons can also replace commas in two specific situations. As with the period, the semicolon replaces a comma while maintaining the comma’s grammatical use. When listing items that already contain commas—such as a list of cities and states—use a semicolon between each item to prevent a confusing and comma-heavy sentence.
Ex: My favorite places to visit are Modesto, California; Paris, Texas; and, Idaho Springs, Colorado.
Finally, you can use a semicolon between before a coordinating conjunction if one or both of the clauses you’re connecting are already comma-heavy.
Ex: The corner store carries milk, bread, and eggs; but it does not carry the coffee I want.
And there you have it! If this article was as exciting to you as it was to me, feel free to stop in anytime for a rousing discussion on the wonderful world of punctuation!
This column about writing and the writing process is created by the Amarillo College Writers’ Corner tutors. The name “Word for Word” pays tribute to Robert W. Wylie (1923-2011), who worked at Amarillo College from 1963 until 1992. He was chairman of the English Department from 1984 to 1992, served as Writer-in-Residence at AC for several years after his retirement and wrote a weekly column for the Amarillo Globe-News called “Word for Word” from 1992 through 2003.
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