The Majestic Semicolon

Grammar fact: Five hundred and forty-two people a day are faced with the conundrum of whether or not to use a semicolon in an important communication. Five hundred and fifteen decide against it, because they just have no freaking clue how it works.

Okay, so that’s not a solid fact, but there are a lot of people who still have no idea how one is used and find themselves utterly confused and wondering how, with modern printing technology, the publisher managed such an egregious mistake of somehow stacking a period on top of a comma.

Or maybe you feel a little overwhelmed when you encounter one and don’t know what to do with it.

“What…is…that?”

But take a moment and think back to the last time you encountered a semicolon. Did you just start spitting up on yourself or did your mind make sense of it by just sort of reading it as a half-assed period? If that’s what your mind did, your mind might be on to something, because the semicolon can sometimes function as a half-assed, wishy-washy period…

BUT MAJESTIC AS ALL GET OUT.

big-lion-beckgroun-free-picture

Behold the semicolon’s feline counterpart!

While the semicolon does have quite a few uses in citations, Grammar Cat would rather clean litter boxes for eternity, Sisyphus-style, than optionally talk about citation formatting. If you’re reading this to get that exact information, I suggest you stop wasting your time on this website and get busy weeping. Just get it all out of your system. There you go… No, crying is not a show of weakness… Well, your father was wrong, then.

Without further ado, we present to you the many magical uses of the majestic semicolon.

Use #1: The semicolon can be used between two independent clauses that lack a conjunction, as a way of showing that the clauses are closely related.

So let’s break that into more manageable terms. An independent clause is a phrase that has both a subject and a predicate, meaning it can stand alone as a complete simple sentence: My puppy and kitten always cuddle.  The subject is My puppy and kitten and the predicate is always cuddle.

You’re welcome.

Say you have two independent clauses and they’re so closely related that you want to put a comma, but you know your teacher/professor/editor will highlight that in a heartbeat and give you the ol’ comma splice song and dance. But a period between them seems so harsh. This sounds like a job for…

THE MAJESTIC SEMICOLON.

Example: It wasn’t difficult to snag the picture; my puppy and kitten always cuddle.

I guess I’m just feeling generous.

This does not mean that any two independent clauses should be connected with a semicolon just because they follow in a logical order. Like Pixy Stix, Björk, and your friends from high school, semicolons are most easily appreciated when they’re only encountered on rare occasions.

Use #2: When the transitional adverbs howeverthushenceindeed,  accordingly,  besides,  therefore,  and sometimes  then separate two independent clauses, a semicolon should be placed before the adverb and a comma should come after it, unless the sentence reads just the same without the comma.

This is probably the rule you remember from middle school and thought was way stuffy and lame and who has time for semicolons when there are Pixy Stix to be snorted? (Disclaimer: Grammar Cat does not encourage or condone snorting Pixy Stix.)

Example: I really wanted to buy the kitten; however, I changed my mind when I remembered how many cacti I’d killed from neglect.

To help you remember the transitional adverbs that lend themselves to the semicolon, here’s a mnemonic device:

The Hairball Has Actually Been Ingested Twenty Times
Thus, Hence, However, Accordingly, Besides, Indeed, Therefore, Then

And here’s a visual:

cat-puke

The Hairball Has Actually Been Ingested Twenty Times. Number twenty-one, coming right up.

Use #3: The semicolon can be used before phrases like that isfor example, namely, and other similarly functioning words when they introduce an independent clause. A comma is often called for after the phrase.

I have a mnemonic device for this one, but it would likely make you vomit or scream or both (it’s the for example part that really makes it unprintable).

Example: Kittens sometimes go to the bathroom in the most unfortunate places; for example, my boyfriend’s work boots.

In the kittens’ defense, the boots did smell like a litter box.

Use #4: Sometimes, and I mean sometimes (and only if you really know what you’re doing and it’s the second full moon of the month and also a Tuesday), the semicolon can be used in place of a comma when two independent clauses are separated by a conjunction.

The editor in me reads that and curses CMoS in the most blasphemous of language; however, the writer in me wants to print that rule on a million tiny slips of paper and then toss them in the air before rolling around on them and then having a good cry, because things are finally, finally, looking up. Sigh.

But before we all get ahead of ourselves, CMoS also clarifies that this rule should generally be used “either to effect a stronger, more dramatic separation between clauses or when the second independent clause has internal punctuation.” And yes, that use of “effect” is correct.

Example of a semicolon for dramatic separation: The cat knew that eating a cactus couldn’t possibly turn out well; but he’d be damned if that stopped him. 

Example of a semicolon before an independent clause with internal punctuation: Living in suburbia is a high-stakes game for a cat; for, of all the learned skills, stealth is not only the most difficult to master, but the most crucial to survival.

That example was outrageous and clearly used as an excuse to post this picture.

Use #5: When a sentence that contains a series has punctuation within items of the series, a semicolon can be used to help clearly differentiate each item of the series.

A sentence containing a series just means that the sentence has some sort of list. The series can be anything as simple as, My cat’s favorite things are naps, yarn, and mice, or the series can list longer phrases; for example, actions: My cat woke from her nap, stretched out her paws, and took a swipe at my ankle.

So if the items of the series have commas embedded within them, then the semicolon, rather than the comma, can be used to separate out the larger items. The most straightforward example might be listing cites with the states they’re in:

My kitten traveled with me to Eugene, Oregon; Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

cat-in-a-suitcase

And TSA was never the wiser. Mwahaha!

The Battle of the Semicolon

 

Some writers and editors only see the semicolon in terms of it looking a lot like the dagger they wish they could plunge into the hearts of semicolon users. Kurt Vonnegut was among this group. However, some people just can’t get enough, and those are also the people who have a questionable amount of Björk on their iPod. Virginia Woolf, for instance, would have had a separate iPod just for Björk. She was crazy about the semicolon, which begs the question of who would win in a Vonnegut–Woolf death match. Holy crap. Let’s all take a second to imagine that.

No, let’s take more than a second. Let’s let that thought ruminate until the next Grammar Cat post.

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