Sunday, September 18, 2011

Semicolon Abuse

Working two different writing jobs, I see different levels of errors. Both jobs, however, share a most frustrating  misuse of the semicolon. According to Eats, Shoots & Leaves author Lynne Truss, the semicolon was invented in the 14th Century; it has been abused ever since.

How's that for use of a semicolon? Semis help clarify or link. Semis conduct a delicate dance between defining separate ideas and connecting shared ones. This week, having spent hours on yet another paper that was heavily dotted with semis to the near point of obscuring text, I have decided to list the major rules here.

  • When writing sentences that list concepts described with multiple words, and those concepts have interior punctuation within each phrasing, please use a semi. 

For example: Edward the Mouse went shopping for all of his favorite cheeses such as Swiss, which he loved for all of its holes; cheddar, whose sharp taste and orange color thrilled him; and goat, which was considered taboo among the mouse community.

  • When writing sentences that list concepts described without interior punctuation (simple lists), commas are appropriate. (The writer of a certain manuscript that I edited this week wanted semis in this context. I objected strongly and confiscated all errant semis and firmly planted commas instead.)

For example: Edward the Mouse when shopping for tasty cheddar cheese, zesty Swiss cheese, and mellow goat cheese.

  • When writing sentences with two independent clauses, and that second clause clarifies or extends the meaning of the first one, please use a semi (or just make two separate sentences and call it a day).

For example: Edward the Mouse had extremely high cholesterol; he ate too much butter with his cheese.

At my full-time job, we use semi-colons in bulleted lists where all components are essential criteria to qualify for something. I am not crazy about this use of semi-colons, but nevertheless, we do it. I'd rather rewrite the leading sentence before the list, but I digress.

For example: In order for Edward the Mouse to qualify for health insurance to treat his high cholesterol problem, he would have to complete the following:
1) reduce his intake of cheese;
2) spend at least 30 minutes a day on the wheel in his cage;
3) drink a small glass of red wine each night; and
4) register and attend classes in a Cheese-Eaters Anonymous group.

Note that we end the last bullet with a period, treating the entire thing as a broken-up sentence. Perhaps corporate writing can be a topic for another day, but let's just say that on the lists required for my second job, I never use semis.

One of the most fun websites to explain semicolon usage is here, which describes semis as the most feared punctuation on earth. I can understand this, having once posted on Facebook this: Don't make me beat you with my semicolon! 

1 comment:

  1. I must admit, in my earlier years as a writer, I abused the semi-colon. I thought I had an excellent command of it, but now I only use the semi-colon sparingly. Before I use a semi-colon now, I will break the sentence up and replace the semi-colon with a period. Mystery novelist Carl Hiaasen is a good example of a writer who uses the semi-colon correctly.


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