Monday, November 1, 2010

Grammar Goody #5-- How to use semicolons (or, when in doubt, don't)

Sometimes students throw semicolons around, hoping it will make their writing look more erudite. My daughter used to love to throw in a semicolon whenever she thought it might look good. But, appearances aside, that's not a good reason to use this most misunderstood of punctuation marks.

So, here's my advice--only use semicolons in two instances.

1. To join two independent clauses that do not have but, or, nor or and.
So, it would be like this
Jim wanted to go; Jan said she didn't.

Now, you could always break that up into two sentences:
Jim wanted to go. Jan said she didn't.

And that would be fine, but it's also good to leave it as one sentence since the clauses are so short and so closely related.

And now the second time to use a semicolon?

2. To set of items in a series that have internal commas. 

He ordered the steak; the potatoes, the kind with the garlic mashed in; and the vegetable of the day.

See why the semicolon is necessary here? It's because "potatoes, the kind with the garlic mashed in" has an internal comma and yet it functions as one of the things in the list, not two. So, if the sentence was punctuated like this:
He ordered the steak, the potatoes, the kind with the garlic mashed in, and the vegetable of the day

then "the kind with the garlic mashed in" would be one of his menu selections, and that's not what you mean.

So, be precise in your punctuation, lest you get  garlic mashed in somewhere you don't want it.

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