Semi Colonic

Categories: max syntax
Thinking about punctuation marks in a kind of hierarchy can be helpful in distinguishing their use. They often mark divisions between syntactic structures. Periods, or "full stops," as the British would have it, are the "strongest" of marks. They end the syntactical structure of a full sentence. Commas indicate more subtle divisions of structure, and parentheses (which we looked at last week) are an even more forceful dividers; they are "stronger" than commas but "weaker" than periods.

Semicolons are strong, but they have very specific and limited uses. They separate independent clauses (i.e. full sentences) in a compound sentence, and they function as a sort of "meta-comma" in lists of items when the items themselves include commas.

1)    Semicolons can take the place of the , [conjunction] structure that joins the clauses in compound sentences. For example:

Sabathia pitched, and Posada caught; the Yankees won the game.
Sabathia pitched; Posada caught, and the Yankees won the game.
Sabathia pitched, Posada caught, and the Yankees won the game.
Sabathia pitched; Posada caught; the Yankees won the game.

Semicolon = , [conjunction]

2)    Semicolons can be "super commas" when each item includes its own comma. Use them to separate items in a series if there's already a comma in one or more of the items. For example:

Liz Brooks, my old roommate; her husband; and Tim, their son, arrived on the 8:10 from Chicago.

Members of the band included Jerry Garcia, guitarist/vocalist; Mickey Hart, percussionist; Bob Weir, guitarist/vocalist; and Phil Lesh, bass player.

And that is IT. There are no other uses of the semicolon. Hooray! For a mark that confuses so many, there are really very few rules. Do beware: There are several classes of words that introduce the second independent clause of a compound sentence, so sometimes one will see a semicolon before a conjunctive adverb, such as "however," in the following sentences:

I love semicolons; however, I know some authors hate them.

One of my favorite Grateful Dead songs is "Sugar Magnolia"; however, one of Pete's favorites is "Ripple."
(Note that the semicolon comes after the quotation marks following the word Magnolia in this construction; the same would be true of the colon, while most other punctuation marks usually come before the quotes, as the period does after the word Ripple.)

As long as one knows the difference between the conjunctive adverbs and the conjunctions, however, and between dependent and independent clauses, there is no cause for confusion--but much cause for semicolons.

Message Edited by Ellen_Scordato on 07-08-2009 02:12 PM
Message Edited by Ellen_Scordato on 07-08-2009 05:39 PM
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