Monday, September 14, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Fear Not the Semicolon

When I entered high school, I learned many things about writing. Most of them were positive, like how to write a decent thesis and how to support it with body paragraphs. Unfortunately, I was also taught to fear the semicolon.

"Don't use it because you'll never be able to do it right," my teacher warned us all. She had that look on her face when she said it. The look that told us if we were to misuse the semicolon, she would gleefully mark our papers with large, angry Fs.

As I grew older, I started to wonder about her dire warning. While writing papers at the collegiate level, the semicolon often seemed so handy. Still, I worried I would fail. What would possess a teacher to instill this type of fear in her students? Could it be that she was just jaded? Could the semicolon in fact be an impossibly wonderful punctuation mark that can "connect two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction?" The Chicago Manual of Style seems to say yes. Moreover, instead of using fear tactics (the veritable shock and awe of punctuation), Chicago will gently guide you toward the proper use of the semicolon.

Ah, the sweet sound of knowledge. Let's proceed, shall we?

According to Chicago, the semicolon is "stronger than a comma, but weaker than a period [and] can assume either role."

Nina intends to write well; her punctuation, however, needs work.

When using adverbs "transitionally between independent clauses," they should be "preceded by a semicolon." Adverbs include the following: accordingly, therefore, indeed, hence, thus, however, and besides.

The teacher had forgotten why she loved the English language; therefore she could not teach to the best of her ability.

Chicago goes on to say that "an independent clause introduced by a conjunction may be proceeded by a semicolon, especially when the independent clause has internal punctuation."

Leslie had decided to challenge her teacher's ideas about semicolons; but fear of failing, as well as the presence of the other students, prevented her from speaking up.

You should also know that "when items in a series involve internal punctuation, they should be separated by semicolons." Additionally, "when the context calls for a semicolon at the end of material enclosed in parenthesis or brackets, the semicolon should follow the closing parenthesis or bracket."

Now, go forth and use the semicolon without trepidation.

1 comment:

  1. MacKenzie1:34 PM

    I heart the semicolon, along with the m dash. Glad to see you're instilling fabulous punctuation advice/knowledge to the masses, Kels!