Punctuation Quiz #8: Strong-Comma Semicolons

By Mark Nichol

All but one of the following sentences incorrectly employs or omits one or more semicolons; revise sentences as necessary to demonstrate correct use of punctuation:

1. We just need to meet this recall movement head on; turn a bad thing into a good thing; and move toward reforming the city for everybody.

2. The possible color combinations are green, blue, and red; green, blue, and yellow; green, red, and yellow; blue, red, and yellow.

3. The band was playing when gusting winds blew the helicopter carrying him; his girlfriend, Jane Smith; and his pilot, John Doe, into an electrical tower.

4. The three cities I’ve live in are Boston, Baltimore, and Albany, New York.

5. For my imaginary dinner guests, I chose John Doe, a nineteenth-century philosopher, Jane Roe, one of the first female mathematicians, and James Smith, an early paleontologist.

Answers and Explanations

Semicolons serve one of two functions: They separate two independent clauses in a sentence when no conjunction links the clauses, and they separate items in run-in lists when at least one of the items is itself a list or otherwise includes a comma. These sentences include list items that may or may not necessitate use of semicolons for the second function (sometimes referred to as the strong-comma function):

1.
Original: We just need to meet this recall movement head on; turn a bad thing into a good thing; and move toward reforming the city for everybody.
Correct : We just need to meet this recall movement head on, turn a bad thing into a good thing, and move toward reforming the city for everybody.

Semicolons are not appropriate for separating simple list items, even if they’re long phrases.

2.
Original: The possible color combinations are green, blue, and red; green, blue, and yellow; green, red, and yellow; blue, red, and yellow.
Correct : The possible color combinations are green, blue, and red; green, blue, and yellow; green, red, and yellow; and blue, red, and yellow.

When the final semicolon in a complex series of items replaces a serial comma, it should be followed by a conjunction, just as a serial comma should.

3.
Original: The band was playing when gusting winds blew the helicopter carrying him; his girlfriend, Jane Smith; and his pilot, John Doe, into an electrical tower.
Correct : The band was playing when gusting winds blew the helicopter carrying him, as well as his girlfriend, Jane Smith, and his pilot, John Doe, into an electrical tower.

A phrase that applies to items separated by semicolons should not end the sentence, as it will appear to apply only to the final item; instead, recast the sentence.

4.
Original: The three cities I’ve live in are Boston, Baltimore, and Albany, New York.
Correct : The three cities I’ve live in are Boston, Baltimore, and Albany, New York.

A semicolon is not necessary when only one list item includes a comma and that item is located at or can be moved to the end of the sentence. This sentence is correct. (However, note this version: “The three cities I’ve live in, in chronological order, are Albany, New York; Boston; and Baltimore.” The state in which a major city is located usually does not need to be identified, and the state name is generally not included for consistent treatment.)

5.
Original: For my imaginary dinner guests, I chose John Doe, a nineteenth-century philosopher, Jane Roe, one of the first female mathematicians, and James Smith, an early paleontologist.
Correct : For my imaginary dinner guests, I chose John Doe, a nineteenth-century philosopher; Jane Roe, one of the first female mathematicians; and James Smith, an early paleontologist.

Although this sentence organizes names and descriptions in a straightforward manner, it’s best to observe the basic rule and use a semicolon after the first two descriptions. (However, constructions such as the following are clear without using semicolons to separate the choices: “If you think it’s true, write T, if you think it’s false, write F, and if you’re not sure, write X.”)

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3 Responses to “Punctuation Quiz #8: Strong-Comma Semicolons”

  • Kathy Steinemann

    Thanks, Mark!

    With today’s almost-illiterate younger generation, I often wonder how much punctuation, grammar, and spelling they notice as they spew out improper they’re, there, their, and countless other stupidities.

    Thanks to Vonnegut, I do monitor semicolon usage, but modern acceptance of sentence fragments renders those pesky little critters less necessary than when I went to school. Yeah, it was before Noah, but …

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Yeah, it was before Noah…”
    LOL – LOL !
    Before Noah Webster or before THE NOAH ??
    Should we call them “Little Noah” and “Big Noah”?
    D.A.W.

  • Zac Sutherland

    All this talk about using semicolons and the author fails to use the present perfect correctly in example number 4.

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