Monday, February 15, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: Semicolon (Part II)

Continued from Part I of this article.

The semicolon should be used to separate items in a list or series that have internal punctuation. In this use, the semicolon helps to clarify the series, keeping the reader from being confused with the division of the commas.

The four housemates are all in their thirties: Caitlin, 34; Matt, 37; Stephen, 31; Brendan, 36.

After work Brendan, trying to return home as quickly as possible, ran to the bus; gave the bus driver, who gave him a scowl, two dollars; and squeezed into a seat between two passengers.

When using a semicolon with clauses that end in parenthesis or brackets, the semicolon should be placed after the closing parenthesis or bracket. When a sentence uses a quote and a semicolon, the semicolon should follow the closing quotation mark unless the semicolon comes from the quoted material.

The semicolon should be used to separate independent clauses and items in a series that have internal punctuation; this punctuation mark demonstrates an attempt to clarify, a way of connecting two or more related thoughts. If you want to revisit the rules of the semicolon, this comic does a great job of explaining the basic uses of this punctuation. While the semicolon remains a debated figure in contemporary grammar, Lewis Thomas in Medusa and the Snail (Viking Press, 1979) touches upon the simple elegance of the semicolon:

It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.

For more information see sections 6.57-62 in the Chicago Manual of Style.

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