Monday, December 31, 2012

The elegant semicolon, part one

The semicolon is a particularly elegant mark of punctuation. That is, it can be elegant when it is used correctly. The semicolon is often confused with its distant cousin, the colon. It is sometimes used instead of a comma. Many people don’t use it at all because they have forgotten the rules, if they ever learned the rules to begin with.

The most basic use for the semicolon is to separate independent clauses in a compound sentence. Ooops! The eyes of most readers just glazed over. What exactly is an independent clause? Let’s break it down: a clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate. “Mary sings” is an example of a very simple independent clause. How is an independent clause different from a dependent clause? An independent clause expresses a complete thought. When you hear “Mary sings,” you might still have questions. What is she singing? Is she a soprano or an alto? Does she have a good voice? However, even with your questions, the writer did express a complete thought.

A dependent clause also has a subject and a predicate, but it can’t stand by itself. “When Mary sings,” is an example of a dependent clause. We are left holding onto a branch at the edge of a cliff wondering what happens when Mary sings. Does glass break? Do savage beasts become tame? We will never know until the writer revises the sentence to include a dependent clause.

A compound sentence, by the way, is a group of two or more independent clauses. Why would you put together two or more independent clauses? It’s a style thing. Joining the ideas together into one sentence makes for a more interesting sentence; it combines similar ideas; it changes the pace of a piece of writing. (Did you notice that I used semicolons here?)

OK. Now that you understand the difference between an independent and dependent clause, we can continue with our discussion of semicolons. When you want to make the link between two ideas even more conspicuous, use a semicolon between them. In my compound sentence in the last paragraph, I wanted to emphasize that there are several reasons for using a semicolon. Let’s look at three paragraphs, two without semicolons and one with semicolons.

Seth saw the snow. He ran to the garage. He took out his sled. He raced toward the hill. He threw himself down the incline. He felt the icy wind on his cheeks. He crashed into the snow fence.

Seth saw the snow, and he ran to the garage, and he took out his sled, and he raced toward the hill, and he threw himself down the incline, and he felt the icy wind on his cheeks, and he crashed into the snow fence.

Seth saw the snow; he ran to the garage; he took out his sled; he raced toward the hill; he threw himself down the incline; he felt the icy wind on his cheeks; he crashed into the snow fence.

When the writer uses only simple sentences, as in example one, the narrative is choppy. It sounds like something from a Dick and Jane reader from the 1950’s.

When the writer uses a conjunction plus a comma, as in example two, the writing sounds like a first grader telling a story. Each idea has equal weight, and it is left to the reader to find emphasis.

With the semicolons, as in example three, the narrative builds in intensity to the final independent clause.

Each is correct. The writer must decide the message s/he is trying to communicate.

Is there a rule? Yes. A semicolon is used to replace a period or a comma plus a coordinating conjunction.

Quiz: Who can name all the coordinating conjunctions? Leave a comment if you think you have them all!

That’s the first use of the semicolon. I’ll be back with other uses soon. In the meantime, keep writing!