Not a Comma; Not Yet a Period


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The semicolon is a polarizing punctuation mark. Consider these disparate points of view:

  • “Do not use semicolons….All they do is show you’ve been to college.” —Kurt Vonnegut
  • “I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a useful little chap.” —Abraham Lincoln

Well said, Mr. Lincoln. The semicolon is a useful little chap; it’s also commonly misunderstood. (And for the record, I’ve loved the semicolon since middle school. In fact, it’s my second-favorite punctuation mark.)

So what are its correct uses? Let’s start with a quick definition. A semicolon is a punctuation mark indicating a pause, typically between two sentences, that’s more pronounced than that indicated by a comma yet not as definitive as indicated by a period. Here’s an example: There are few foods more delicious than Cheetos; they truly are “dangerously cheesy.”

Could a period work here? Sure. If you really wanted to emphasize their dangerous cheesiness, you could write it like so: There are few foods more delicious than Cheetos. (Take a pause and a breath.)They truly are “dangerously cheesy.” But I don’t see the point of an extended pause between these clauses—unless, of course, I’m writing a poem about Cheetos and wish to be more dramatic. Then I’d just throw punctuation out the window altogether and create something like this (to be read in the voice of Christopher Walken): There are few foods. More delicious. Than Cheetos. They. Truly are. “Dangerously Cheesy.”

Before we move on, I have a question: who out there would rather use a comma between the clauses? Anyone? Bueller? That would look like this: There are few foods more delicious than Cheetos, they truly are “dangerously cheesy.” And it would be 100 percent, unequivocally, no-two-ways-about-it wrong. That, my friends, is called a comma splice, and comma splices are evil.

Here are a two additional uses for the semicolon:

  • Use a semicolon if there’s a conjunctive adverb (words like however, moreover, consequently, and nevertheless) joining two main clauses. Example: Pulp Fiction was the best movie of 1994; nevertheless, Forrest Gump won the “Best Picture” Oscar. Opting for a comma would put you back into that dreaded comma splice territory (something even more irritating than Tom Hanks going on and on about “Gin-nay” for two hours).
  • Use a semicolon to separate items in a series if one or more of those items includes a comma. Example: I’ve gotten lost in many cities, including Detroit, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Columbus, Ohio. This promotes readability.

So what are your feelings on the semicolon? Do you agree that it’s a “useful little chap?” And Pulp Fiction was robbed, am I right?

Word of the Week: Chap
Song of the Week: Let’s Stay Together, by Al Green

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