A semicolon’s use is primarily to separate major clauses within sentences. Due to our education, we usually tend to think of a sentence as holding only one major clause and numerous minor clauses within that; this is not necessarily true.
A semicolon should be broadly used as both a list separator and a separator of major clauses in sentences. A good piece of advice may be this: if one inserts a semicolon as a clause separator as opposed to the former list separator, then one should be able to test it by replacing it momentarily with a full stop and seeing whether or not it still makes sense. The reason this works is because both semicolons and full stops can be used to separate major clauses. However, generally for the sake of clear writing, there is scope for semicolons so as to avoid short, fragmented and seemingly unconnected sentences.
Let us now consider a number of sound examples. If I were to write the following:
The party finally ended at two; Mary and John left soon after.
…then I would still make sense writing:
The party finally ended at two. Mary and John left soon after.
There is also confusion with positions of commas and semicolons as individual clause separators. If I were to write:
I didn’t believe him; and, I could tell he was deliberately lying.
…then I would have applied the semicolon in a sensible manner. Let us check:
I didn’t believe him. And, I could tell he was deliberately lying.
Yes indeed, it still makes sense. However, semicolon abusers and posers may well write this:
I didn’t believe him, and; I could tell he was deliberately lying.
…which makes absolutely no sense, when you consider it to in effect mean:
I didn’t believe him, and. I could tell he was deliberately lying.
Correction: February 19, 2008
An article in some editions on Monday about a New York City Transit employee’s deft use of the semicolon in a public service placard was less deft in its punctuation of the title of a book by Lynne Truss, who called the placard a “lovely example” of proper punctuation. The title of the book is “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” — not “Eats Shoots & Leaves.” (The subtitle of Ms. Truss’s book is “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.”)
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