1. The Crazy Kakoos
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    The Crazy Kakoos Member

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    The Semicolon

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by The Crazy Kakoos, Jul 10, 2012.

    I had a professor who, after assigning us a paper, would tell us "Don't even bother using semicolons. You will most likely not use them properly."

    This of course is the wrong thing to say to me if you don't want me to do something. After reading an article on semicolons online which described them as connecting two related but seperate clauses I went ahead, took the risk, and put one in my paper... and yes it was a mark on my grade. Several makrs actually as I came back for more on the next paper, and again on the one after that.

    So I was wondering if any of you had any advice on semicolons? A link to a site that describes their rules well, or maybe even a book. I'm the type of person who doesn't like to stay defeated, and still feel uncomfortable using it.
     
  2. noodlepower
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    noodlepower Member

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    You are correct in stating that semicolons are used to connect two related but separate clauses. Simply put, if you have two sentences referring to the same thing, you can connect them with a semicolon.

    Ex:
    Sentence 1: I am not going on a date with him.

    Sentence 2: He looks creepy.

    Using a semicolon it would be:

    I am not going on a date with him; he looks creepy.

    Incorrect use of a semicolon would be trying to relate two unrelated ideas.

    The dog is tired. Pick up the kids from school. <--- The dog being tired and picking up the kids are two unrelated ideas and therefore a period is needed instead of a semicolon.

    Also, you never use conjunctions (and, but, yet, etc) with a semicolon.

    Ex: I like to eat many different types of pies; but, I wouldn't eat one made of mud. <--- Incorrect.

    You can use them in a list when you need to separate things that have commas (like cities & states)... for example: "We went to Mobile, Alabama; San Francisco, California; and, Honolulu, Hawaii."

    Mmm.... I think they can also be used to show contrasting ideas but I'm not sure on that. So, someone correct me if I'm wrong.
     
  3. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    use in fiction [american fiction, anyway] is to be discouraged, imo... in all instances, a comma, period, em dash, or conjunction will do a much better job and not confuse or annoy readers who find them more suited to non-fiction...
     
  4. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    IMO, a professor who says you shouldn't use a semicolon because you "probably" don't know how is really saying that HE doesn't know how, and therefore won't know if you're using it properly. I would challenge the professor to prove that I used the semicolon incorrectly before he takes marks off. If he can't, he should give the marks back.

    If the professor notices that too many students use the semicolon incorrectly, he should give the class a quick lesson in its proper use. That would be more useful and educational for the students than just saying "Don't use it because you don't know how."

    And I still don't see why mammamaia keeps telling forum members not to use semicolons. She says em dashes, conjunctions, etc. invariably do a better job, but that isn't true. If American readers are confused or annoyed by semicolons, it just means the American education system has let them down, not that there's anything wrong with the semicolon itself.
     
  5. The Crazy Kakoos
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    The Crazy Kakoos Member

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    So ironically my professors quote has a semicolon? :)

    Whether I will be able to use it or not I'd still like to master it simply because I'm not good at it. I'll try it out in a manuscript and let the editor decide.
     
  6. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Sadly, it looks like your professor hates semicolons, either because he/she doesn't know how to use them or because students have repeatedly misused them in past assignments. As minstrel said, there is a solution either way.

    I'm not sure why using a semicolon in an academic environment would be frowned upon. I would talk to the professor about it and show him/her that you have a good grasp of how and when to use a semicolon.
     
  7. The Crazy Kakoos
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    The Crazy Kakoos Member

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    I no longer have the professor so this is merely a personal challenge now.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Did he meet with a messy end?

    (Sorry - just kidding! Your avatar inspired it, though ...)
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with Maia.
     
  10. The Crazy Kakoos
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    The Crazy Kakoos Member

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    Nope haha, I managed to pass the class with an A. Despite the semicolon mark, she did find my "Darth Augustus" paper "Original."
     
  11. rogue writer
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    rogue writer Member

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    I completely agree w/ Mamma.
     
  12. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    There seems to be a lot more hostility to semicolons in the USA than in the UK, where we still quite like the things. Most things I read are liberally peppered with the things. Probably because they're idiosyncratic, and we like idiosyncratic. :)

    When we do use them we're much less strict about them, too, and often use then with conjunctions. The things they connect still have to be closely related, though, even on this side of the Atlantic.

    As usual in writing, we're much less rule-bound than the Land of the Free ;)
     
  13. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    I use them all the time, granted only in technical writing, and cannot imagine life without. My boss LOVES the "blah; blah; blah; and, blah." construction, which is wrong. She always marks it as a correction and I always ignore it. We have an 'understanding' at this point.

    Most commonly I use the semi-colon to separate a series of things that each have sub clauses. For clarity's sake:

    I like apples, pears, and bananas. <-- This is correct, clear, and understandable.

    I like apples, but only sour ones, pears, but not red ones, and bananas, but only when they are green. <-- Oh Lord, what have I done?

    I like apples, but only sour ones; pears, but not red ones; and bananas, but only when they are green. <-- Much better.

    It's even more important is you have sub-clauses and lists interspersed in the sentence:
    "I like apples, like Granny Smiths, Red Delicious, and Figi, pears, but I only like those when they are in season, and, in the summer, I love bananas, plantains, and those miniature banana-like things--whatever they're called!"

    "I like apples, like Granny Smiths, Red Delicious, and Figi; pears, but I only like those when they are in season; and, in the summer, I love bananas, plantains, and those miniature banana-like things--whatever they're called!"
    (I included this for my boss' sake, since it is a case where a ; and, construction is correct.)
     
  14. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Lewis Thomas was an essayist famed for his excellent prose style. His collections of essays won him three National Book Awards, among other honors. He had this to say about the semicolon:

    "I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer."

    My thoughts exactly, though Thomas expressed them with more grace and wit than I can usually muster.
     
  15. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Someone once explained that if the 2 clauses you've connected with a semi-colon could be separated into 2 individual sentences and still be a sentence, then you've used the semi-colon correctly.

    So for example, in my above sentence, you couldn't use a semi-colon.

    But one user's example of "I don't want to go on a date with him; he's creepy" is fine - the phrase "he's creepy" can easily be a stand-alone sentence. They should basically be closely related sentences that you've decided to connect together to soften the pause between sentences or the tone of them. I would separate them into 2 sentences for a more abrupt tone, or semi-colon in more thinky, philosophical scenes where I want the writing to have a certain flow.

    I didn't explain this very well but it was thanks to this explanation that I understood how to use the semi-colon :rolleyes:
     
  16. AutumnBarlow
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    AutumnBarlow New Member

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    I spent a miserable 3 months as an unpaid intern on a UK regional newspaper. One of my jobs was rewriting press releases. All semi-colons were to be expunged without mercy.

    Most publications have a house style, and often "no semi-colons" is part of it. Newspapers especially prefer to have short sentences, rather than a long one with a semi-colon in there.

    Which is a shame. From an aesthetic point of view, they can add a certain rhythm to a sentence when needed.
     
  17. SaybleNox
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    SaybleNox Member

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    I love semi colons. As minstrel quoted above they add to the prose, not take away from it. They cannot simply be replaced by colons or periods, dashes or commas. Those punctuation marks mean something different; they don't fill the void.
     
  18. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't get the whole "Purge semicolons" ideology. They exist, they are part of grammatical and syntax system, and if you can find a use for them in your writing you should use them!
     
  19. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    In most circumstances, the semicolon is a weak compromise between a period and a comma and conjunction.

    There is little need for semicolons in fiction, and most inexperienced writers who use them overuse them.

    Many excellent, well-known authors have written novel after novel with nary a semicolon to be found. They either end a sentence decisively, or join closely related clauses with a comma and a conjunction. You'll never go wrong by following their lead.
     
  20. I Am Vague
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    I Am Vague Active Member

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    I use semicolons every so often and the rule I use is that if you can successfully place the word "and" in for it, it fits.
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's very much my view. Semicolons have an effect. If that's the effect you want, use one. If it isn't, don't. I'm not persuaded by the argument that many writers have written great works without using semicolons, so we should follow their example. Many great writers have written great works without using the word "elephant", but if that's the right word for the situation then use it.
     
  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Right on cue...
     
  23. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Do you know, I think if I has said that you would have given me an infraction for it. If you have a point to make, perhaps you should make it?

    Both of these options change the rhythm of the prose. Sometimes, a semicolon is the perfect choice, and a period or a comma-conjunction would be a "weak compromise." To a chef, sage is not a weak compromise between parsley and rosemary.

    If they're overused, it's because kids aren't taught to use them properly and tastefully.

    I bet many terrible authors have written piles of crap without using semicolons, too. I'm not saying their work would be improved by using a few semicolons here and there, but I am saying that I could definitely go wrong by following THEIR lead.
     
  24. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    I think one thing that's been hinted at in this thread should be written outright, do not confuse academic and literary writing, or the use of certain elements of writing between the two. In academic writing, every person in this thread could be wrong in what they've said about how to use a semicolon, if the style guide your college mandates says it's wrong. So the best thing you can do for future classes, especially with that professor, is find out what style guide your school utilizes (MLA, Chicago, Turabian, APA, etc. etc.) and then read the section on the use of semicolons.

    The style guide I am familiar with allows for a semicolon to be used in a number of ways, including replacing a comma between clauses that utilize commas (See LordKyleofEarth's post).

    But remember, style guides are only "guides" in that, your professor can overrule it for his or her class unless their syllabus says that all papers must conform to XXXX style guide. Then, you can utilize the style guide to show him why you did what you did.

    ______________

    As far as fiction is concerned, I was told that the best use of a semicolon is when you two sentences that follow the same thought, and you want your reader to read them both without a break.

    I'm interested in what advice others have received on semicolons specifically in fiction.
     
  25. Solar
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    Solar Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's a weak argument. Many inexperienced writers overuse adjectives.
    Are you saying we should purge adjectives from creative writing?
    Some inexperienced writers overuse commas. Should we get rid of commas too?

    How about words?

    Another weak argument. Many successful authors have written
    excellent novels in which they use semicolons.
     

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