Whither The Semicolon? Whither The Comma?

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This is a guest post by Eva R. Marienchild.

I just sent a colleague back his “Away” e-mail—you know, the ones you post when you’ll be out of your office for a while. It had a comma where a semicolon should have been in the last sentence. To wit: “We will respond to your emails before then, probably Saturday.” Well, I blew my stack—in the privacy of my own home/office, of course.

When I’d composed myself, I sent off a suggested correction: Suggested minor changes in the last sentence of your “Away Message” – a semicolon and the word “by”. How about: “We will respond to your emails before then; probably by Saturday.”

My colleague couldn’t possibly take offence at the way I’d phrased it. Still, it never fails to give me pause when I gently red-line my fellow e-mail writers’ dispatches. I don’t do it lightly.

I feel as if I’m cleaning up someone else’s dog poop when I send off a correction like that. I mean, some dog owners take kindly to your scooping up their dog poop if you have a plastic baggie handy (and they don’t). Some are proprietary about their doggie’s messes.

What’s more, it’s perfectly understandable, the error.

Many folks write as they speak. They put a full stop (period) after the part in the sentence where they figure they’d stop talking. And they’re usually right. However, here’s where they get into trouble: they “commatize” when they’d breathe out. And they use a semi-colon when, and only when, they’ve not used one yet in the entire e-mail. (Am I being unduly harsh?)

Where, after all, DOES one place a semicolon, some of you are asking—although I’m sure many of you have heard or read the rule, which is: “Do not join independent clauses by a comma. If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction”—and here we pause to remind you that a conjunction is a word that joins two or more words, phrases, etc., like “and”—“are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.” The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. (1918).

Perfectly understandable, no? Well, yes, but if commas and semicolons aren’t your forte; if they’re the weak chink in your grammatical armor, I’ve a feeling that, when pen is put to paper, or fingertip to keyboard, you shall still be undecided.

Can we try a little word game, then? When you need to STOP two powerful clauses, only a big ol’ SEMI (as in semi-trailer) can do the trick.

It is half-past five; we cannot reach town before dark. (Thanks to Mr. Strunk for the example.)

Please note: you may forego the semicolon in many cases, and use a period in its place, creating two independent sentences.

And when you are merely taking a half-a-breath, or trying to make the meaning a little clearer, the little beckoning comma shall do the job.

For example, “In the future machines will do monotonous work” is not correct. It confuses the reader. Are the machines “future machines?” No. So it’s the comma to the rescue! “In the future, machines will do monotonous work” is correct.

It’s a gossamer thread of a difference, I know, but this tenuous little string can make or break your intended phrase if you’re serious about the English language.

Hither comma, thither semicolon. And nary a spot of dog poop for me to pick up!

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48 thoughts on “Whither The Semicolon? Whither The Comma?”

  1. I have to take issue with your first example. Where the second part of the sentence is not a main clause, and it clarifies what has been stated in the first part, that for me will always require a colon.

    “We will respond to your emails before then: probably [by] Saturday.”

  2. Hi Guest Author, thank you for the post.
    I do think that the semicolon is not clearly explained in the sense that the explanation lacks the semantic dimension. According to Strunk’s usage definition, any coordinator that joins two sentences can be freely replaced by a semicolon. So far, so good. Consider, if you please, the following examples:

    “Alejandro played football, so Maria went shopping”
    “Alejandro played football, for Maria went shopping”
    [The examples are taken from Eslbee.com]

    I find it hard to write:

    Alejandro played football; Maria went shopping.
    Alejandro played football; Maria went shopping.

    As we can see, the use of semicolons, according to the usage definition provided in this post, can be freely used without considering the semantic nature of language. Hence, the definition is misleading and, therefore, inapplicable.

    It is the semantic dimension that gives value to language, where syntax outlines language usage. For the sake of being useful, I can leave you with Wikipedia (illustrations are given in parentheses):

    Between CLOSELY RELATED (the semantic side) independent clauses (the syntactic side) not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction (i.e. if not joined with a coordinator, where the coordinator can be placed)
    “I went to the basketball building; I was told it was closed for cleaning.”
    “I told Ben he’s running for the hills; I wonder if he knew I was joking.”
    “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”
    “A man chooses; a slave obeys.”
    Between independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase or a conjunctive adverb
    “Everyone knows that he is guilty of committing the crime; of course, it will never be proven.”[2]
    “Bob’s friend was refused admittance by the doorkeeper; as a result, he left before the flamingos.”
    “I like to eat fish; however, I don’t like to be eaten by them.”
    “I like being odd; yet, I hate being different.”
    Between items in a series or listing containing internal punctuation, especially parenthetic commas, where the semicolons function as serial commas:
    “She saw three men: Jamie, who came from New Zealand; John, the milkman’s son; and George, a gaunt kind of man.”
    “Several fast food restaurants can be found in each of: London, England; Paris, France; Dublin, Ireland; and Madrid, Spain.”
    “Examples of familiar sequences are: one, two and three; a, b and c; and first, second and third.”

    Finally, thank you too much for this post. I wish you the best. Of course, you can criticize my comment and I will be happy with that.


  3. Dear Anonymous Guest Columnist:
    Normally a rule that calls for the placing of a semi-colon between two independent clauses which are not joined by a coordinating conjunction would thus require an independent clause on both sides of the semi-colon. “Probably Saturday” is by no means an independent clause. Your poor colleague had his “away” message incorrectly “corrected” — “probably Saturday” is an adverbial of time indicating when he would be likely to respond (not “by” Saturday, but “on” Saturday). The original comma was indeed the correct punctuation. Shame about that little tirade you had.

  4. I consider myself a fairly literate person, but the only time I use semicolons is at the end of lines in certain computer programming languages.

    Not only can’t I remember the rules for using a semicolon in prose, but after years of schooling including High School AP English and a year in the English department in college, I cannot even recall being TAUGHT the rules…..

    In other words, this blog entry frightens me.


  5. Hmm. Please note that you do not use a comma at all when ‘and’ is purely the link between two co-ordinate clauses!
    Correct, therefore, is: ‘Please note: you may forego the semicolon in many cases and use a period in its place, [thus/so] creating two independent sentences.’

  6. Interesting post, but you do not take your own advice when you write, “Well, yes, but if commas and semicolons aren’t your forte; if they’re the weak chink in your grammatical armor, I’ve a feeling that, when pen is put to paper, or fingertip to keyboard, you shall still be undecided.” In this instance the first phrase is not independent, so the semicolon does not belong. Your statement “if they’re the weak chink in your grammatical armor” is parenthetical information and could be set off by commas on both sides.

    You quote Mr. Strunk, and his example is correct; both sides of the semicolon do in fact present independent phrases.

    My take on your friend’s email (and I would never offer a friend an unsolicited correction) is that “probably Saturday” is not an independent phrase because it does not contain both a subject and a predicate; therefore, it does not qualify for a semicolon.

  7. Dear Anonymous Guest Columnist:

    I normally find this blog interesting and thought provoking. Today, though, it turned out to be a prescriptivist tirade.

    As cyngnifier has already pointed out, “probably Saturday” is by no means an independent clause, and the “rule” you mention from Strunk and White relates to independent clauses that are joined in such a way as to make a complete thought without the use of conjunctions. (And by the way, Strunk and White’s “rules” are considered rather arbitrary by most linguists, and also by most of the writing community).

    So here’s my advice (and I don’t give advice lightly): take another course or two in linguistics before you start correcting your colleagues’ emails. It might help us all.

  8. Tony, I believe there was an article recently on this very blog that talked about how the comma with the and is also acceptable these days.

  9. I tend to use the semi-colon in place of the period/coordinating conjunction only when I’m told to write a single sentence, and I can’t manage it in just one independent clause. In other words, I use it when I need to cheat. Otherwise, I just make two sentences. With the notable exceptions of:

    sentences using ‘however,’ ‘therefore,’ and ‘furthermore.’ That’s always been my favorite use of the semicolon

    and when the SC acts as a serial comma in lists where the objects listed contain inside punctuation (as mentioned by Allusion).

    I agree with Cygnifier that the away message example used in the original post was probably correct to begin with (I will not comment on the presumptuousness of someone actually sending an email to correct another person’s “away message.” What? I just commented on it? Oh. Sorry.) In that case…I can see doing it in my head, but actually to “voice” the complaint seems a bit much.

  10. I’m almost. . .ALMOST. . .sure the guest author was joking about blowing his stack and correcting the message. Almost.

  11. First: Your advice to your friend was uncalled for. His message was perfectly acceptable, and the comma is used correctly in “We will respond to your emails before then, probably Saturday.”
    Your use of the semicolon is incorrect in the following sentence, as well. It should be a comma, as it is separating clauses in a series. <> (I would also question your use of “shall” in that sentence.)
    Another thing about semicolons: They are NOT mandatory between independent clauses that lack conjunctions if the clauses are short. Example: “We came, we saw, we conquered.” Or: “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” Those commas are perfectly acceptable, though semicolons would not be incorrect.

    Second: You need to master the use of the colon. You made two errors with your colons. After a colon, IF what follows is a complete sentence, begin it with a capital. IF what follows the colon is a phrase, do not capitalize the first letter. You managed to break both of those rules in your treatise.

    Third: Your first sentence is in need of a rewrite. If you’re in the business of writing, you should not have been satisfied with “I just sent a colleague back his “Away” e-mail…”

    Fourth: If you are a follower of Strunk, read his rules for quotation marks. I realize that you are probably writing in British English, but I am pretty sure that Strunk was American. In American English, we put all periods or commas INSIDE the quotation marks. You wrote: <> You should move that period so it precedes the quotation marks. Some well-intentioned people have invented a “rule” that quoted single words or phrases place the period outside the quotation marks; but in all the US stylebooks I have encountered, it’s just not so. You correctly placed the period inside the quotation marks here: <>

  12. Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to relieve others of their errors.

    That the two phrases in the offending e-mail are not independent clauses has already been addressed. I agree with Cygnifier that the original comma was correct. I note two additional–albeit minor–mistakes in the Guest Author’s essay.

    A “chink” is a crack or fissure, so to refer to “the weak chink in your grammatical armor” is redundant. You mean “the chink in your armor” or “the weak point in your armor.”

    The phrase “you may forego the semicolon in many cases” is also incorrect. The word “forego” means to go before or precede.” The word meaning “to give up or do without” is “forgo,” without the “e.”

    It always behooves us to use punctuation, words and spelling correctly, never more so than when we allege to correct others.

  13. Dear Guest Author,

    Thank you for your cleverly written article. That said, I believe you may be mistaken and that you owe your colleague an apology.

    A semicolon can be used in a variety of ways. One of those ways is to join two independent clauses instead of using a comma and a coordinating conjunction.

    Note: By definition, you should be able to separate independent clauses into individual, stand-alone sentences.

    In your example, “probably by Sunday” is not a clause at all, much less an independent clause. (Recall, a clause requires both a subject and a verb, and your example contains neither.) As an adverbial phrase, it cannot stand alone and should not be joined to a previous independent clause with a semicolon.

    This reminds me of mislearning I experienced with my 10th grade English teacher. She insisted on spelling “a lot” as “alot” and would correct “a lot” with a facetious reply, “Why are you talking about real estate?” It took me years to unlearn her “correction.”

    Good Day,

  14. While I enjoy most of your daily posts, I wonder if anyone proofread this one before posting it. I was forced to reread the first two paragraphs several times before I understood the point the writer was attempting to convey — a sure sign of composition problems. As for the correction to his colleague’s away message, it appears that his colleague is better suited to offer advice on the proper use of commas and semicolons than is the guest author.

  15. Gosh, it’s wonderful that my fellow readers got so worked up about this. I think it’s great! Yes, I was joking about the little tirade. Who made up all these rules, anyway? Mere mortals like us who couldn’t stand to see our language pilloried.

    I’m glad we get so exercised about a sentence. You’ve all taught me a thing or two. As long as the sentence doesn’t include slang or a curse word, I’ll let it pass! Do whatever you like, as long as you write as graciously as you all have, here!

    Dust off your Strunks, if you like, but remember that what matters is what you do with those finely chiselled words. Yes, yes; this IS a post about grammar. My hat’s off to you for the way you dissect a sentence. It has quite put me in a paler light, among all of you grammar stars, but it’s all good!

    Cheers and God bless,

  16. I agree with you in 99% of your posts, but I have to disagree with this one. Why would you add a semicolon there, when a comma works just fine? I agree with adding the “by”. “Probably by Saturday” is an incomplete sentence and not an independent clause. Therefore, it could never be separated by a period and broken into two sentences. To me, I use a semicolon when there are two complete sentences or clauses that pertain to the same subject and would therefore benefit from a semicolon rather than a full period. I’d never use a semicolon in this case. It’s ridiculous.

    Can you explain this? Thanks!

  17. Hi,

    I live in the same world as ApK, only my story is worse. I survived Law School without knowing how to ‘properly’ use a semicolon! It is only now that I call myself a Freelance Writer that I am making an effort to clean up my own ‘dog poo’, one grammatical mess at a time.

    Thank you for the informative posts, and just to let you know, I genuinely appreciate all my friends and colleagues who ‘red line’ my work. Especially when it is before it goes to my editor.


  18. I agree with Mara and Jackie: I feel the first sentence is perfectly correct. The way I see it ‘then’ is working as a noun and ‘probably Saturday’ is an appositive phrase sitting next to it. The comma is needed as this is a non-essential phrase. To put a semi-colon before ‘probably by Saturday’ would be incorrect as this isn’t an independent clause.

  19. OMG! Editing emails for supposedly improper comma use compares to “cleaning up someone else’s dog poop?” Why would anybody waste a second of their precious life doing anything so foul?

    Considering how the news, advertising and music mediums mangle the Queen’s English, a misplaced comma or semicolon doesn’t add up to three specks of significance.

  20. You are wrong, smartass. You just misinterpreted his meaning thinking ‘by’ was what he meant, but in context a comma would have been just fine.

  21. I like semi-colons; I like to play with them. I find that they help to improve the flow of a sentence in ways a comma, full-stop (i.e. period) and colon cannot. I am, however. careful not to use them overly and don’t think them mandatory in places where the writer may prefer a comma or simply begin a new sentence.

    Alas, the lesson on semi-colon usage, though perhaps not as bad as some here believe, was overshadowed and undermined by your decision to compare apparent misuse with dog shit.

    That said, the article and the ensuing discussion has helped to improve my application of the noble but sad semi-colon.

  22. I’m happy with the use of semicolon v. comma but where I’m a little unsure is where a full colon should be used. A post on this topic would be great.


  23. ‘Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’ Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007), A Man without a Country

  24. In the second paragraph you write how about, and then make you suggested correction. I think your words ‘how about’ would be best served with a question mark, as you are asking the person to consider your suggestion.

  25. My understanding is that semicolons should only be used to link two complete sentences, or independent clauses with conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases.

    Here is an example: “There is much confusion over when to use semicolons; as a result, many times they are used incorrectly.”

    Colons are also a source of confusion.

    Here is an example: “I like writing: it is relaxing; it stimulates my mind; it keeps me out of trouble; and it is a good way to get girls.”

    If I were to write those as sentences it would look like this: “I like writing. It is relaxing. It stimulates my mind. Writing is a good way to get girls.”

    Well, that’s pretty ho hum.

    Semicolons can also be used to separate a list of similar things: “Next week I am going to Encino, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Reno, Nevada; and Portland, Oregon.”

    The original e-mail sentence was correct.

    But who am I to judge? Besides, ever since I had my semicolon removed I’ve had to punctuate in a bag. LOL.

  26. I see from my previous post that my comma use is less than perfectly consistant. I prefer to think of these as “typos” rather than outright mistakes.

  27. Being a newcomer to this site, I was amused by the guest author’s vehement response to a colleague’s e-mail message as far as the use of punctuation is concerned. The fact of the matter is that the original writer of the message was correct in using a comma after “then,” because what comes after “then” is not an independent clause. The guest author was correct, however, in suggesting that the word “by” should be added before “Saturday” to make the message more clear.

  28. @NEB: I knew there was a good reason why I never liked Vonnegut; he mixes his metaphors. Besides, he’s wrong, at least in my case. I’ve attended three Australian universities, including two of the most prestigious, and not one of my lecturers or tutors ever bothered to correct my English, let alone teach semi-colon use. (They probably didn’t know how!) High School was notable only for its introduction to girls, and the complete absence of a proper education in either grammar or punctuation.

  29. Greetings, ladies and gentlemen:

    I accede! Garrison, keep on making typos! I propose we all get more and more creative with the usage of semicolons and commas.

    Soon we’ll have developed a whole new bunch of rules for semi’s and commas to rival Garrison’s usage of them (as stated in the final sentence of his second-to-the-last post). Who says we can’t?

    I love you guys. Harness your passions and go forth and change the world. It doesn’t matter if your comma usage is less than perfectly consistent.

    Thank you for the lesson.

    Respectfully yours,

  30. Greetings, again, fellow DWT readers and most savvy of all grammaticians:

    Before I close shop, I’d like to leave you with the thought behind my placing a semicolon before “probably by Saturday” in my “Wither The Semicolon. Wither the Comma?” post.

    Here it is: I try never to use qualifiers. When I see one, in my mind, the noun and verb are implied and (right or wrong) I see the sentence as a bit mangled.

    I, therefore, was redoing my acquaintance’s sentence structure. To wit: “(I will) probably (get it to you) by Saturday.”

    I’ve always patterned my sentences after the beautifully long-winded yet consistently complete sentences of authors of yore.

    For instance, I’m currently re-reading Henry James. I have yet to find a qualifier among his sentences.

    That may not be colloquially correct, but that was my logic. I know some of you asked me to explain. In all the hullabaloo, I neglected to do so.

    Thanks for the opportunity to exchange thought processes.
    All the best,
    Anon (aka Eva)

  31. I’m not commenting on the whole semi colon issue, but if you like to correct others so easily, then let me correct one comment of yours. You said “I’ve a feeling that, when pen is put to paper, or fingertip to keyboard, you shall still be undecided. ”

    However, “you shall” is the imperative. Are you telling us to still be undecided; don’t you mean “you will still be undecided”?

  32. Dear Guest Author,

    You have touched on a very interesting topic. Our language has changed a great deal in a relatively short period of time. Once upon a time, small changes in the language came about over the course of hundreds of years, but in the modern era, significant changes have occurred in the last 50 years.

    Forty (plus) years ago, when I was learning all of this stuff, the rules were very different and the goal would have been to restructure the sentence to something more formal. Like yourself my initial reaction to some of the things I read is to cringe at what I perceive to be their flimsy structure. But, then I stop and say to myself: “things have changed, old boy.” To my way of thinking, the changes have not all been for the best.

    Drop into your local bookstore, open the first bestselling novel you see and take a gander. Yikes. More likely than not, you will be treated to pages and pages reflecting the literary acumen of a sixth grader (no offense to sixth graders). In addition, you’ll find more typographical errors than you can shake a stick at, suggesting that the subtle art of proofreading is lost on modern publishers. Yes, I rant. I even rave occasionally.

    For those of you who are younger, it was sometime in the mid-1970’s that a group of educational “experts” decided that ENGLISH had grown stuffy, old fashioned, and brittle with age. It was a time for revisionism and revisions were made. Unfortunately, any revision was seen as an improvement and it seems that little thought was given to making changes that increased overall communicativeness. The attitude at the time was “throw all the rules out and start over.”

    Because of the new attitude, the rules were not well taught and the people who are now the teachers don’t really know the rules. So here we are today, the best educated (?) generation with access to millions of times more material (through this glowing screen connected to the internet) and what do we do with it? We text, rather than communicate; we express feelings, rather than share ideas; we slavishly follow the lives of our favorite pop culture icons and fail to build lives of our own.

    Most of all, it seems we have cut ourselves off from our history, our culture, and our standards. Adrift in this brave new world many of us do not know who we have been and so we cannot know who we are. Not knowing who we are we can never be what we want to be.

    Rant complete.

  33. @Garrison:

    Bravo! I hereby appoint you Vice Chair (my children long ago elected me Supreme Chair for Life) of the Save the English Language Campaign, American Chapter.

    Keep up the good work!

  34. Semicolons are evil. Do not use them. They disrupt the flow of sentences, are awkward, and provoke confusion among readers. If you find a place where a semicolon is required to make the sentence grammatically correct, it is best to rewrite the sentence altogether so that a semicolon is not needed.

  35. @Julie,

    If nominated I refuse to run and if elected I refuse to serve. Ha!

    Many thanks for your kind words.

    Someone once told me that in a hundred years everything we know now will be wrong. Though an exaggeration, the point is well made: everything changes. But, it is best when the changes make things better. Language changes best when it becomes more clear, more versitile, and more richly expressive.

    In the last 20 or 30 years the functional vocabulary of most Americans has dropped precipitously. Add to this an almost total loss of grammar and the current trend becomes rather alarming. This in a day and age when writing requires less effort than ever before in the history of us humans and the written word can be instantly distributed worldwide. Is it just me, or is there a great opportunity being lost here?

  36. @Brad Matthews,

    Semicolons are not evil; they are just drawn that way.

    Telling a writer not to use semicolons is like telling an artist not to use red. If a painting requires the color red you should paint something else that does not.

    Anyway, it is up to you what punctuation you use, but please don’t ask me to limit the tools I have with which to work. On occasion, my canvas needs a semicolon or two.

  37. @Julie,

    Thank you once again. I must warn you that I am not a “language professional,” nor am I an “expert” and I received my grammar instruction in the 1960’s, way before most people on this site were born.

    I have strong feelings about what I see as a decline in the standards applied to our language and the way it is taught. But I love this forum for discussion and I have been impressed with the quality of the material here. I will continue to comment from time to time and will try to avoid getting on my soap box too often.

  38. Greatly enjoyed the post. I was talking to a comma the other day and asked about all this stuff about a comma and a semicolon. The comma told me to just look at the sentence. A comma is there to kind of trip you up like a pair of shoes in a hallway. I asked what about the semicolon and the comma said it did the same thing except it was more like a foot stool in the hallway. And then I asked the comma about those independent clauses and the comma looked a little confused and asked my what an independent clause was.

  39. @Zane,

    So, a period must be like a closed door you have to open and a paragraph is like having to go next door to discover the next topic and chapters are like getting on the bus and going across town to a new neighborhood. Of course, as hard as I try, I usually fall asleep before I can get to the next paragraph or chapter.

    Tell the comma that “independent clause” is that part of the insurance policy that covers how deep in the dent is depends on how fast your car was going when you got it. That should clarify.

    No, really, tell the comma that an independent clause is really like a little sentence that, for reasons of style or clarity, or to avoid having a lot of little sentences, has been added to another sentence to make them like a compound sentence. I think semicolons are cool; as a result, I will continue to use them. Besides they make a good winking smiley face. ; )

    Besides, if you remove my semicolon I will have to punctuate in a bag.

  40. Garrison

    Thank you so much for responding. Mine is a bit late as I wanted to finish my first novel by Christmas day and it worked and the second one got started immediately the next day. Hooray for me. Now if I can just find a professional reader who is more honest than nice.

    I know exactly what you mean by those chapters seeming to be bus stations and with my luck Marilyn Monroe will walk in and who knows where my character will end up; better to keep the story going and not have to worry about a transfer that can get you off track.

    I agree that semicolons are cool. I want my reader to keep going unimpeded, and that semicolon makes for just a brief gear change and not a complete stop and then having to start shifting from first all over again.

  41. Can’t believe I just read all the comments! Saturday morning browse-mode, I suppose… Just had to throw in a fresh consideration regarding the punctuation of the original ‘away message’. How about, “We will respond to your emails before then – probably Saturday.” (Should be an ‘m dash’.)

    Punctuation aside, to me, it’s the meaning of the email message which is fuzzy. As it stands, ‘on Saturday’ is implied, I think. I’d have sought clarification on whether ‘on Saturday’ or ‘by Saturday’ was intended. Perhaps the meaning was clear from the context; would be useful to know what the ‘then’ refers to.


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