I have an apology to make. I’ve been harbouring an atrocious secret. I’m addicted to semicolons. I’m not sure where it started. Maybe it was born of a sense of superiority. Maybe as a cure for grammatical homogeneity. Possibly I was just showing off. In the beginning at least. But it’s spiraled into something of catastrophic proportion.
According to the Oxford English dictionary, I have it all wrong, or at the very least, I have it way too often. I use my beloved semicolon with horrendous, eye-jarring frequency. It’s meant to be a shy creature, the debutante of the grammatical world. Seen once a season, and admired from afar. I’ve dragged it out so often it’s lost all its mystique. I’ve turned it into the syntactical equivalent of a hooker.
Common wisdom says the first step to resolving any problem is acknowledging it, so in the interests of moving forward: Dear reader, I apologise deeply for my long term, wanton, almost brazen over- and incorrect use of the semicolon.
I came across my, er, “issue” while re-reading some of my earlier posts and frankly, I was mortified at the frequency of my semicolon abuse. I’ve used them where I should’ve used a comma. I’ve used them where I could’ve used a dash. I’ve used them instead of full stops. Oh wait … legit usages, mostly. But … it’s possible I may have found one which would’ve been better replaced by a model railway and an ice cream sandwich.
One random study I found on the internet suggests I’d be better aiming for around three every 1000 words if I aspire to replicate classical English literature. My previous blog: 705 words, 10 semi’s. I’ve got some work to do. (Also: Must. Resist. Semi. Truck. Pun.)
So, how should I be using them? My newly-adopted friend Oxford’s online dictionary tells me:
The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop. Oxford 2017.
Easy! I can do this. I’m sure. Maybe. Well, it’s worth a try. Separation will be difficult, but with support I’ll make it.
Oxford’s been kind enough to spell out for me how I *should* be using this marvelously quirky-looking member of my punctuation toolkit:
It’s used between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely linked to be made into separate sentences. Oxford 2017.
It goes on to provide me with solid examples. In the past I’ve been guilty of using “it”, the errant semicolon, in conspicuously prominent positions. I don’t think I’ve gone as far as doing something; like that, which is just outright incorrect – or as I prefer to think of it: A “typo”.
More examples, and even a possibly not-100%-legit PhD in semicolon usage, are offered over at Write With Jean. She explains semi’s are easy – there’s only two circumstances to use them. The first: Grab two closely related sentences, bang ’em next to each other, replace the full stop with the semi and de-capitalise the first word of the second sentence. To work up an example based on Jean’s:
The egg was cooked. I grabbed it out of the water.
The egg was cooked; I grabbed it out of the water.
And that’s the super-advanced example, where I can’t de-capitalise the “I”. Both are technically correct uses of the English language’s weird but lovely grammatical structure. Using the semi simply adds a little distinction to the prose. Makes it flow. Adds character. Makes a sentence a college graduate.
The second use, according to Jean, is a descriptive list containing commas. Rather than:
- A book, 300 pages.
- A chair, single-seated.
- Eight forks, silver-plated.
A book, 300 pages, a chair, single-seated, and eight forks, silver plated.
A book, 300 pages; a chair, single-seated; and eight forks, silver-plated.
Grammarly – an organisation which handles miscreant grammatacists such as myself with a calm, quiet aplomb and a bit of a ribbing – has even put together this 2-minute refresher on the semi for me.
They add a third usage – winkies. The cuter brother of the smilie.
With the help of Grammarly, Oxford and Jean, I may be on my way to a cure for the common semicolon. And I’ve done my internal grammar police duty for the week. What’s that over there? Yeah, that’s my smugness strutting past in its shiny boots, skinny jeans and beard. Hipster-level smug. Go girl. (Hrmm, about that beard…)
Next on the chopping block: “wanton, almost brazen”, “conspicuously prominent” … Why use one word Lara, when eight or nine would do.
Fixing my grammar, one easy-to-spot problem at a time. It’s good to have goals, yeah?