As a high school English teacher, it is often rather embarrassing to confess that it took me many years to figure out the rules of comma and semicolon usage. However, I think my students appreciate my lack of perfection and hopefully can better understand that everyone struggles in the art of composition.
A few years ago, I finally realized that the two marks that make up a semicolon actually explain its purpose. A semicolon is meant to join two complete sentences together with a little more distance than a comma and a conjunction (don’t let the fancy word “conjunction” scare you-it simply means “and/but/or/nor/so/etc.”) but not as completely as a period alone.
Essentially you have two options when combining two sentences into one.
Option 1: “I walked into the meeting, and everyone else there was already texting, tweeting or tattling to someone else.” (look, it’s Rule #2 from last week’s post!).
Option 2: “I walked into the meeting; everyone there was already texting, tweeting or tattling to someone else.” (alternative to Rule #2-use a semicolon instead)
While the difference between the two sentences is subtle, the semicolon creates a bigger pause, not unlike my actual pause when I walked into my meeting and so much was taking place. I actually love to use semi-colons now, because I often want to join sentences together but already have too many “ands” in the sentence or just want to create a little more distance between two connected thoughts.
Roll with the Semicolon:
To decide whether or not a semicolon is appropriate, enlist the same test as you did for Comma Rule #2 –is there a complete sentence to the LEFT of my semicolon AND to the RIGHT of my semicolon. If you don’t have two complete sentences, you can’t use it!
Also, when you use words like “however,” “therefore,” or “alternatively” in the middle of your sentence, you will want to use a semicolon (do remember to have a complete sentence on both sides).
Example: I wanted to attend the happy hour with all of my colleagues; however, Sue wanted to have a more intimate conversation about our work frustrations.
Try your hand:
- Jackie loved ordering practical, yet beautiful, furniture for the office however, she was hardly ever there.
- Steve came across as extremely personable to everyone he met his favorite part of the job was the feedback he got from GovLoop participants.
- John was a great manager and used his skills to develop the talents of his subordinates.
*You are correct if you put a semicolon before the “however” in the first sentence, after “met” in the second, and used no extra punctuation in the third because there are not two separate sentences.
Finally, if you do not ever want to use semicolons, consider yourself a Kurt Vonnegut fan. His first rule of creativity: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Thanks for reading; I hope you have either gained a little more knowledge or reassured yourself that you are indeed using the semicolon correctly. Please continue to send your educationally-minded friends and family to my other blog: vocabgal.com.
Sarah (aka Vocab Gal)
P.S. For a more thorough explanation of the semicolon, feel free to see the Grammar Girl page on semicolons: