Thursday, 13 February 2014

Off-Topic: The English Semicolon

This is a semicolon. We all know this curious form of punctuation. We see it in books and magazines every day, but how many of us use it when we are writing letters or emails? Do we even know how to use it? Recently I read the statement:

"The only purpose of the semicolon is to let your readers know you have been to college".
Ironically, that's not so untrue. But let me state what it is and what it does. There are two uses of the semicolon:

(1) It links two gramatically complete sentences to contrast.them.
(2) It breaks up a list whose elements include commas.

The second of these is the simplest to explain, so I'll deal with it first. Usually when we present a list we separate it with commas, for instance:

"My favourite cities are Berlin, Paris and Moscow".

If, however, we want to specify the countries these cities are in, which the English would only do for smaller towns, but the Americans frequently do for large cities, we would write:

"My favourite cities are Berlin, Germany; Paris, France; and Moscow, Russia".

This list would be unintelligible if we used commas instead of semicolons.

Now for an example of the first usage:

"People who live in the country drink cider; people who live in the city drink beer".

The obvious question when reading this sentence is, why not use a full stop instead? (In America a full stop is called a period). The answer is that you can. In all cases where a semicolon separates two sentences a full stop could be used. It's still obvious from the context that two sentences are being contrasted, but it's no longer emphasised by a grammatical marker, the semicolon. In fact, it's also possible to separate two contrasting sentences with a comma, though this is only considered good style in the case of short sentences, for instance:

"Men drink beer, women drink wine".

It's important to note that the sentences on either side of a semicolon must be complete, and they must be in a contrasting relationship to one another. That means that the following two sentences are false:

"People who live in the country drink cider; whereas people who live in the city drink beer". (A comma is needed).
"People who live in the country drink cider; Frank drinks a lot of cider". (A full stop is needed).

But getting back to what I said at the beginning about semicolons being a sign of a college education: I agree. Despite protests by people who want to save the semicolon, it is never essential in separating sentences. If you aren't sure when it's right to use semicolons, it's better to not use them at all. As for me, I went to university, and I want people to know that I'm well educated, so I shall continue to use semicolons in this blog.

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