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Unlocking the Secrets of the Semicolon

Dec 10, 2013

In all my years of writing and reviewing communications products I have found that there is no punctuation mark more confusing to most writers than the semicolon. Conventional wisdom seems to be to avoid its use altogether in favor of breaking up long clauses or phrases into shorter sentences—and that would be a mistake. The semicolon is uniquely qualified for performing a number of very specific and important syntactical tasks and omitting it altogether limits the ways a writer can create—and a reader can perceive—written language.  Let’s first review the ways the semicolon is properly used in documents and then take a look at how it is improperly used.

Semicolons are often used to separate items in sentences which themselves contain commas or other marks of punctuation, such as in the following:

  • This project consists of three tasks: (1) create clear, concise, and consistent communications products; (2) determine their effect on the economic, organizational, and strategic health of the company; and (3) measure their utility during the next fiscal year.
  • The team traveled to Morgantown, WV; Pittsburgh, PA; and Washington, DC.

Many KeyLogic documents contain long, technically complex phrases or dependent clauses. While placing semicolons between these sentence elements is not technically acceptable to some grammarians, their use is occasionally acceptable for the purpose of adding clarity, such as in the following example:

  • The support included comparing subawardee records with payments recorded by the prime; updating the existing reconciliation spreadsheet with additional invoices not previously provided or available; and providing the client with a comparison of labor billing rates and reporting discrepancies. 

The semicolon is commonly found in KeyLogic documents between independent clauses (clauses with a subject and verb and that can stand alone as sentences) linked by a conjunctive adverb (such as then, however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, and therefore) or transitional expression (such as in fact or for example), as in the following example:

  • There are no specific activities for this task; therefore, work is tracked at the task level.

The semicolon is more rarely used to establish a relationship between independent clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet). Before we get into this use of the semicolon in fairly complex sentences, let’s review this function using the following simple example.

  • Jill discovered that her jewelry was missing. Jack visited the pawn shop the next day.

While we might assume in the above example that Jack’s visit to the pawn shop is somehow related to Jill’s missing jewelry, the relationship is not firmly established until a semicolon is used to join the two sentences, as in the following example:

  • Jill discovered that her jewelry was missing; Jack visited the pawn shop the next day.

Note that the semicolon cannot be used to establish a relationship between dependent clauses or phrases that cannot stand alone as sentences. (If you cannot place a period between the two clauses or phrases, then you cannot place a semicolon between them either.) Unfortunately, this particular use of the semicolon is not nearly as straightforward in most KeyLogic documents as it is in the above example. A more typical example of this relationship can be found below.

  • Twenty-four work products were provided on an emergent or priority basis; all of these were delivered within the requested short timeframes.

Semicolons can also be used to clarify or expound upon a particular subject.

  • The benefits were realized immediately; average completion times have decreased by over 66 percent.

Note that in both these cases the semicolon is placed between sentence elements that are independent clauses (i.e., have a subject and verb and can stand alone as sentences).

Now let’s take a look at some incorrect examples of semicolon use.

The semicolon in the following example is inserted between two related independent clauses and each clause can stand alone as a sentence; however, the clauses in this case are joined by a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet,  and so) and should be joined by a comma instead.

INCORRECT

  • KeyLogic provides project management expertise; and the company has a history of developing good project managers for the client.

CORRECTED

  • KeyLogic provides project management expertise, and the company has a history of developing good project managers for the client.

The semicolon in the next example is inserted between independent clauses and each clause can stand alone as a sentence; however, the clauses are not closely enough related to justify its use. Note that it is also incorrect to insert a comma between the following two unrelated independent clauses (doing so creates a comma splice). A period should be placed after each independent clause instead.

INCORRECT (independent clauses not closely enough related)

  • KeyLogic provides project management expertise; the company has a history of developing excellent advertising materials for the client.

INCORRECT (comma splice)

  • KeyLogic provides project management expertise, the company has a history of developing excellent advertising materials for the client.

CORRECTED

  • KeyLogic provides project management expertise.  The company has a history of developing excellent advertising materials for the client.

The semicolon is incorrectly used in the following example both because it is inserted before a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so) and between an independent clause (that can stand alone as a sentence) and a phrase that cannot. (If you cannot place a period between the two, then you cannot place a semicolon between them either.)

INCORRECT

  • KeyLogic provides project management expertise; and has a history of developing good project managers for the client.

CORRECTED

  • KeyLogic provides project management expertise and has a history of developing good project managers for the client.

Note that because the sentence element following the coordinating conjunction does not comprise an independent clause (just a phrase), the comma can be omitted altogether. 

Questions about the semicolon? Ask below.



Written by: John Oelfke

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