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MLP: That 'useful little chap,' the semicolon

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| September 15, 2022 1:00 AM

Mrs. Language Person just loves the semicolon: a harmonic marriage of period and comma. So useful yet fading, this grammar tool subtly provides emphasis, linking two otherwise independent clauses. Semicolons give pause — longer than a comma, yet less final than a period.

The slow demise and abuse (when used) of the once-favored semicolon is yet another portent of language’s languid anguish.

What a melancholy thought for your MLP. Sigh.

A semicolon (;), Dear Reader, is neither colon (:) nor comma (,). Colons: These should briefly precede explanations or answer expectations. Colons shouldn’t (but too often incorrectly do) precede restatements; that’s for the semicolon. Put differently, if two related statements could be separated into two sentences without adding a verb, subject or object noun, they could also be joined by a semicolon.

What a mouthful; it needs a semicolon.

Admittedly a semicolon thus used is an option, not a requirement. It’s also an option for emphasis; it’s not a requirement. It is an option. It is not a requirement.

Which of those made the most sense?

A comma, whose uses typically include setting off dependent phrases such as this one, indicates pause or introduces a thought. Commas are also useful in lists to separate items one, two and three. Actually, a semicolon sometimes does the same; look for more on that below.

The simplest way to differentiate between proper uses of semicolons and commas is to ask this: Can the sentence parts being set off from one another exist independently? If the answer is no, a comma is the better choice. If they could, a semicolon it is.

Consider that the preceding phrase, “If they could” could not form a sentence alone, so a comma correctly followed; however, MLP could easily have removed the semicolon in this sentence and replaced it with a period (with or without the “however”). She did not, despite the sentence’s cumbersome length, because the two ideas within it are related, and are thus stronger together (and of course, to make a point).

Let’s wrap it up with two examples (note the colon properly precedes an example):

Use a semicolon to strengthen two related statements which, separately, could each be a sentence. “Please tell me now; I need to know before the meeting.”

Use a semicolon to introduce conjunctive or introductory words and phrases (e.g., however, for example, although, therefore), if they introduce a full sentence. “I tried to play with the baby; however, she was too sleepy.”

Now if you recall, Dear Reader, MLP suggested semicolons may occasionally fulfill a comma’s role. This is purely practical; sometimes semicolons are needed to keep things separate within a list of lists, or when there are too many commas, so a semicolon is substituted for clarity.

“The bridesmaids hail from Sandpoint, Idaho; Salem, Oregon; and Syracuse, New York.”

“Successful candidates will have a B.A., B.S., or technical certificate; three recommendations from a teacher, employer or school counselor; and at least two years’ experience.”

Too many commas in that one would have confused the applicants. When in doubt, Dear Reader, MLP advises skipping the semicolon in favor of separate, complete sentences. Better to be neglected than abused, poor chap; yet it’s a shame this ever-practical pet of language lovers is losing his appeal.

“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it's a useful little chap.” — Abraham Lincoln

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.

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