Monday, February 08, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: Semicolon (Part I)

Somewhere between the divider and the full stop, the comma and the period, stands the semicolon. A gentle pause, the semicolon can perform the functions of either of these two forms of punctuation. While proper use of the semicolon was once cause for duels, the mark has seen a decline in usage over the past two centuries. The end of this curious mark may loom nearby, but we must strive to understand the proper use (and the possible joys) of the semicolon.

The semicolon is most often used to separate two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction. These clauses should be related, the latter modifying or clarifying the former.

My cats have grown close; I often find them snuggling in the chairs of my house.

The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition, is careful to point: "The following adverbs, among others, should be preceded by a semicolon when used transitionally between independent clauses: then, however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, and therefore."

My house became cold in December; however, my cats adjusted quickly by sleeping under the covers of my bed.

The semicolon may also be used to separate a clarifying clause from the initial independent clause. It is most common in this case to use the semicolon before phrases such as "that is" or "namely."

We should expect vast changes for the company in the coming year; that is, we should prepare to cut costs on future projects.

Our salmon style guide notes that the semicolon may be used before a conjunction when the conjunction separates two independent clauses. While a comma is typically used in this situation, the semicolon is helpful when the independent clauses have internal punctuation.

Our company was focusing on publishing works of fiction; but requests from new clients, in addition to calls from our current authors, pushed us to accept more works of poetry.

Continue reading in Part II of this article.

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