The title starts with ‘a little bit…’ because we’ve all been to A&E this evening; my daughter trod on a dead hedgehog and we thought she had a bit of it in her foot. Fortunately, on closer examination of her foot by the hospital doctor, we were told that she was fine; however, the rest of my family weren’t because they had to put up with me explaining to them about the use of semicolons (as I sadly took a couple of my books with me). Don’t laugh, I didn’t know how long we’d be there and wanted to have something prepared for my blog tonight.
So, the semicolon is today’s subject and there appears to be two main uses: to separate two sentences that are linked somehow and to separate items in a list (where the items in the list are long sentences).
1. Semicolons to separate two sentences
From what I have learnt today, it appears that a semicolon is used to separate two sentences that could quite happily stand as sentences on their own. For example:
“James started to cry; he didn’t want to go to hospital.”
The semicolon used in the above sentence shows that the two parts of the sentence are closely linked in some way. If a full stop was used instead of a semicolon, that would also be correct, but it would read very differently; however a comma used between the two parts, is the wrong use of punctuation.
Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, writes, ”we could infer from a semicolon that these two events occurred at the same time”. With reference to my above example, James could have started to cry at the same time as he didn’t want to go to hospital.
2. Semicolons in lists
Another use of the semi colon is in lists which I mentioned briefly in note 5 ‘rules about lists in a sentence’. The example I used was that semicolons can also be used to separate the items in a list if the items in the list are long sentences:
E.g. I need to buy the following items at lunchtime: a selection of birthday cards; wrapping paper with happy birthday on it; stainless steel scissors; a gold and silver pen; sellotape in a dispenser; pink and white balloons, and Sam’s present.
My thoughts: Although I knew something about semicolons, I can’t confess that I have been using them correctly all the time. I also have another confession to make; until today I probably would have spelt semicolon as two words. Shame on me!
I tend to agree with Lynne Truss, who says it’s sad that people are no longer learning how to use the colon and semicolon (Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves). I personally think it adds clarity and power to a piece of writing and will be practising using them in my writing from now on.
It’s late and I have to go to bed now.
John Seely The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation, USA
Lynne Truss – Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2007), UK