Sunday, November 3, 2013

Semicolons: Friend or Foe?

I love the semicolon. 

There, I said it.  I know some don't (ahem, Ms. Tameri) but they serve a purpose. I love the Oatmeal's take on using semicolons. Here's what the Chicago Manual Of Style has to say about semicolons:

CMOS 6.54: 
Use of the semicolon
In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would.

She spent much of her free time immersed in the ocean; no mere water-resistant watch would do.
Though a gifted writer, Miqueas has never bothered to master the semicolon; he insists that half a colon is no colon at all.
This is the most common usage I see; the close connection that is needed for some sentences is best served by the semicolon, not a comma or a period.
CMOS 6.55:
Semicolons with “however,” “therefore,” “indeed,” and the like
Certain adverbs, when they are used to join two independent clauses, should be preceded by a semicolon rather than a comma. These transitional adverbs include however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, therefore, and sometimes then.  A comma usually follows the adverb but may be omitted if the sentence seems just as effective without it.

The accuracy of Jesse’s watch was never in question; besides, he was an expert at intuiting the time of day from the position of the sun and stars.
Kallista was determined not to miss anything on her voyage; accordingly, she made an appointment with her ophthalmologist.
The trumpet player developed a painful cold sore; therefore plans for a third show were scrapped.
This example is a little less common in most of the manuscripts I see.  But when I do see this, I check for the length of the sentence; sometimes I suggest splitting up the clauses to make it easier for the reader.
CMOS 6.56:
Semicolons with “that is,” “for example,” “namely,” and the like
A semicolon may be used before expressions such as that is, for example, or namely when they introduce an independent clause.

Keesler managed to change the subject; that is, he introduced a tangential issue.

Again, not a very common usage I see, but good to know.

CMOS 6.57: 
Semicolons before a conjunction
Normally, an independent clause introduced by a conjunction is preceded by a comma. In formal prose, a semicolon may be used insteadeither to effect a stronger, more dramatic separation between clauses or when the second independent clause has internal punctuation.

Frobisher had always assured his grandson that the house would be his; yet there was no provision for this bequest in his will.
Garrett had insisted on remixing the track; but the engineer’s demands for overtime pay, together with the band’s reluctance, persuaded him to accept the original mix. 
I really appreciate the semicolon's ability to make a strong, dramatic separation in addition to giving closer connections.  It's so versatile! 

CMOS 6.58: 
Semicolons in a complex series
When items in a series themselves contain internal punctuation, separating the items with semicolons can aid clarity. If ambiguity seems unlikely, commas may be used instead.

The membership of the international commission was as follows: France, 4; Germany, 5; Great Britain, 1; Italy, 3; United States, 7.
The defendant, in an attempt to mitigate his sentence, pleaded that he had recently, on doctor’s orders, gone off his medications; that his carwhich, incidentally, he had won in the late 1970s on Let’s Make a Dealhad spontaneously caught on fire; and that he had not eaten for several days.
She decided to buy three watchesan atomic watch for travel within the United States, a solar-powered, water-resistant quartz for international travel, and an expensive self-winding model for special occasions.
Ah, those complex sentences!  Anything to make the meaning clear is a good thing!

So, don't fear the semicolon.  Don't dismiss it, either!

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