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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Colons and Semicolons: What Mr Sanders Taught Me

I've mentioned my old English teacher Mr Sanders on this blog a few times before (see this old post about possessive apostrophes, for example).

What I've not shared before, however, are his quick and simple guidelines regarding the use of semicolons and colons.

The guidelines perhaps (well, definitely) don't tell you everything you need to know, but as an aide memoire at least, they are still extremely useful.

According to Mr Sanders, a colon says, "here comes".

That's spot on, in my view, and could replace many more verbose explanations. A colon indicates that an explanation or expansion of the preceding content is about to follow. Often, a colon is used to introduce a list, as in the example below.

She had everything she needed to become a best-selling author: an idea, a word processor, and a stack of blank paper on which to print out her novel.

It doesn't have to precede a list, though...

There was just one other thing she needed: a month to create her masterpiece.

A colon can even precede a single word if it meets the requirement set out above...

He knew what that signal meant: success.

So if a colon says “here comes”, what does a semicolon say? It doesn't speak, according to Mr Sanders. What he taught us was that, “a semicolon is 99 percent of a full stop.”

Again, this is a great guideline to follow, but it does require a bit of explanation. Most of the time, a semicolon is used to separate two independent clauses. An independent clause is basically the same as a grammatical sentence – it has a subject and a finite verb, and is a complete unit of meaning in its own right.

When a semicolon is used to separate two independent clauses, it's essentially interchangeable with a full stop (or period, for my US readers). Here's an example...

The date was 7 April 2002; it was a date he would remember for many years to come.

Grammatically, the semicolon here could just as well be replaced by a full stop. It does, however, suggest a slightly closer relationship between the two clauses than a full stop would. For that reason, I might venture to suggest that “95% of a full stop” would be a more accurate definition – even though Mr Sanders would doubtless put me in detention for saying so!

There are two other ways semicolons can be used. One is to separate items in a list when some items already have commas within them...

Bring me two apples; three bananas, not too ripe; a nice, juicy, fresh orange; and a kiwi fruit.

Finally, a semicolon can be used before an independent clause introduced by a conjunctive adverb or a transitional phrase (e.g. as a result).

Playing tennis isn't an option because of the bad weather; however, we can always play table tennis instead.

We played table tennis rather than tennis today; as a result, I was soundly thrashed.

This is a more specialized (and less common) use of the semi-colon. In sentences such as the ones above, however, it may well be the best choice. Note that a comma in these examples would be ungrammatical. A full stop would be perfectly acceptable, though.

If you would like to know more about the latter use of semi-colons, Beth Hill has an excellent article about this subject on her blog.

Misuse of colons and semicolons is widespread, even in traditionally published work; it is even more common in self-published books.

A frequent mistake is to use a semicolon as a sort of punctuation maid-of-all-work, even when another punctuation mark – a colon or dash, perhaps – would be more appropriate. Even Joe Konrath – a top self-published author – is guilty of this mistake in his otherwise excellent thrillers such as Origin.

Many readers are unaware of these rules, of course, but others are. Both my partner (Jayne, an avid reader but non-writer) and I have been known to give up on books - and authors - when they don't use these marks correctly.

Colons and semicolons are subtle, even beautiful, punctuation marks that will enrich your writing if used correctly. So it really is worth making the effort to learn the rules governing their use. I can imagine Mr Sanders nodding approvingly now!

Photo Credit: Classroom people with teacher by Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Anonymous H.L. Pauff said...

I've never really known how to properly use a semi-colon so I've always stayed away from them in my writing. Great post!

7:11 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thank you. Glad you liked it!

10:48 PM  
Blogger Jim Hartley said...

I don't like semicolons, and I avoid using them in my writing. When my editor hassles me, I generally go for the "full stop" option.
She won't let me get away with the--as you say "ungrammatical"--comma, because the grammar books frown on comma-splices. I suspect that I do get away with some in my short stories, which get much less stringent editing.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for your comments, Jim. As you say, joining two independent clauses with a comma is sometimes described as a comma-splice. It is something we grammar purists frown on!

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Alex G said...

This is a fantastic post - so useful to show people who struggle with this.

Obviously, I could compliment it for ages, but dissent is far more fun... :)

My only quibble - perhaps just a matter of personal taste - is the use of semi-colons to separate items in a list when some already have commas. This may well be grammatically sound but have to admit I dislike it. I'd offer up the following instead, with a colon:

Bring me: two apples; three bananas, not too ripe; a nice, juicy, fresh orange; and a kiwi fruit.

Or even:

Bring me two apples, three bananas (not too ripe), a nice, juicy, fresh orange, and a kiwi fruit.

But as I said, nice one Nick!

10:49 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Alex. I'm sure Mr Sanders would be delighted as well if he was still around (the odds are against it, I think, since he'd be well into his 90s by now).

Likewise, I'm always happy to debate the fine points of grammar or punctuation with anyone!

In my article, I didn't say that semi-colons *have* to be used to separate items in a list where some items already have commas. However, I think the use of semi-colons in this case reduces the risk of confusion. And it's so much more elegant, of course :-)

I do still prefer my version to your two alternatives. Strictly speaking, with the exception of certain specialized uses, colons should only be used after complete independent clauses. "Bring me" is not an independent clause, as its meaning is clearly incomplete on its own. I'd be happy with something like the following, however...

Here's what I want you to bring me: two apples, three bananas, and so on...

Here's an online reference for this:

The other option, using commas and parentheses, is obviously fine grammatically, but maybe not quite as elegant (IMO).

So I'm happy to stick with my original here. Thanks very much again for your kind and thought-provoking comments, though!

10:33 AM  
Blogger Damond Nollan said...

Thanks for the refresher. While I don't feel 100% sure I'm using either one correct, I often mimic writers I like.

"word; however, word" <-- That's one I use a lot.

Wonderful resource, glad I found you.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for your kind comment, Damond.

10:00 PM  

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