Learning to Love the Semicolon

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Sometimes a comma isn’t enough and a full stop is a beat too far. Sometimes you want to draw the reader into making a conclusion but you don’t want to give them that conclusion on a plate — that’s what colons are for after all (no bowel jokes please, we’re all grown-ups).

Take a bow the semicolon. Unlike the full stop, this little fella is not a modest punctuation mark yet, unlike the exclamation mark, it isn’t showy or vulgar. Making an entrance from its top to its tail, the semicolon likes to intimidate. It likes the fact that you don’t know quite what to do with it, playing with your doubt and insecurity until you pass it over for an easy comma and a conjunction. It will wait for someone worthier. And you? You will have to live in vain regret with the what-ifs and if-onlys.

Semi-colon cartoon referencing a quote by  Kurt Vonnegut

God’s sake, people, man up! The semicolon has got far too big for its intellectual boots and needs knocking down to size. It’s not as important as it likes to think, but there’s still no denying that it’s a nifty bit of kit to have in your punctuation playbox.

See, you could put:

“My cat, Morlock, has a Satanic stare. I bought him from a witch under a full moon.”*

Two statements, each complete, separated by a full stop. Reads okay, if a little static.

(*My cat’s name is actually Roger.)

Or you could put:

“My cat, Morlock, has a Satanic stare; I bought him from a witch under a full moon.”

Oh, yeah, now we’re talking. While the statements are still individual and complete, the semicolon reduces the beat between them so binding them more closely to each other. In some cases, it conveys an inference. In this case:

“Ain’t suprisin’ my cat, Morlock, is bad ass ‘cos I done bought him from a witch under a goddamn full moon.”

And I don’t know why I’m speaking like that either. I watch far too much television. But anyway, you get my point. A semicolon is handy to indicate a close relationship between two separate and complete statements.

If you can separate the two clauses with an and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet — for instance — then do not use a semicolon. You’ll look silly. Semicolons aren’t interested in effecting a wholesale family reunion between statements; as I’ve said, they’re only interested in matchmaking. Commas are the Holly Willoughbys in this instance. Always eager to please, commas don’t mind sitting next to a conjunction. In fact, they enjoy it. Sluts.

So, now that you’ve got that under your belt, you’re feeling that you could walk right up to a semicolon and sweet talk it to Paradise and back, right? Hold your horses, stud.

Cute kitten, definitely not Satanic

When Morlock sees someone he doesn’t like, he stares at them until they die screaming in agony; he’s really good at staring.”

Internal punctuation, see, in that first statement? But don’t panic! A semicolon between the two statements keeps the relationship between them intact and prevents a comma splice,* the English stylistic equivalent of brown polyester — not technically illegal but should be.

(*A comma splice is when two independent clauses are joined by a comma, a hanging offence in the eyes of purists, but in fiction it can add pace and realism, so screw ‘em.)

You’ve done your hair, brushed your teeth, cued Barry White on the iPod. You’re in the mood for romance and you’re not going to take no for an answer. There’s a lucky semicolon out there with your name on it, rowrrr.

I’ll quickly run through this as you put your best anorak on.

“Morlock’s previous owners include Goody Peristalsis, the famous child-eating witch; Queen Renal Papilloma, the wicked stepmother of Princess Fluffkins; and Satan, God of Central Heating and Call Centres.”

Semicolons are perfect when you need to describe and list both at the same time.

Okay, I’m done. Off you go, and whatever you do… play safe. No more unwanted semicolons now, you hear me?

Semicolon cartoon: Put your pants back on; we're going home.



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