Whither The Semicolon? Whither The Comma?
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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