Whither The Semicolon? Whither The Comma?

By Guest Author

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!

Recommended for you: « »



48 Responses to “Whither The Semicolon? Whither The Comma?”

  • Brian Matthews

    I try to avoid the semicolon whenever possible; I just don’t like it much.

  • Julia Johnston

    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.

    Julia

  • Zane

    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.

  • Garrison

    @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.

  • Zane

    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.

  • Garrison

    @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.

  • Julie

    @Garrison:

    I accept your refusal of my nomination, but you must remain active as a consultant. Nice essay. 🙂

  • Garrison

    @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.

  • Garrison

    @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?

  • Brad Mathews

    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.

  • Julie

    @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!

  • Garrison

    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.

  • abby

    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”?

  • Guest Author

    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)

  • Guest Author

    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,
    Anon

  • Michael

    @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.

  • Kitty Wheat

    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.

  • Garrison

    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.

Leave a comment: