Semicoherent Semicogitations on the Semicolon

October 19th, 2010

Dear Charles –

How do you know when to cease using a plain old regular comma and begin using the much fancier, vain and hoity-toity semicolon, which – as you probably know – is really just a comma with a high falutin’ top notch? Is there a simple way to remember? One of those mnemonic devices? Maybe a funny song or a cute little rhyme? Could you make up a funny song or a cute little rhyme? Sometimes I quake at how horribly I have neglected the use of the semicolon. I am sure that I have opened psychic sucking semi-colon wounds that will never heal.

You don’t even want to know how bad the dinner was that I just cooked,

Rechelle

_____________________

That’s exactly where you’re wrong, Rechelle; I very much do want to know how bad the dinner you just cooked was, and I’ll do anything to find out, even put an example of a correctly used semicolon in the first line of this message. As you can see, the semicolon is used chiefly to connect two independent clauses. You can remember this rule with the following convenient mnemonic device:

Tamara Slept In Until Cornwallis The Curious Tinhorn Interrupted Clumsily

You may be startled to realize that the first letters of the words in this entertaining and easy-to-remember sentence are also the first letters in “the semicolon is used chiefly to connect two independent clauses.”

And as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, an independent clause is a clause that can stand on its own as a sentence (mnemonic device: Anna Incinerated Cookbooks In A Cult That Considered Sawdust One Ingredient Of An Apple Strudel).

You also might find this cute little rhyme useful:

Before you type that comma, pause; is that an independent clause?

As you can see, the rhyme (which you may recognize as a key component of my ambitious but largely ineffective “Pause Before You Punctuate” campaign a few years back) contains an example of a correctly used semicolon. Here’s another such example:

Sylvia noticed a dried substance on the Ouija board; it looked like turkey tetrazzini.

As we can see, the clause before the semicolon can stand on its own as a sentence, as can the clause following it. In fact, you could make this sentence into two sentences:

Sylvia noticed a dried substance on the Ouija board. It looked like turkey tetrazzini.

However, the two thoughts are so closely linked that many folks wouldn’t want to cleave them apart quite so drastically.

The second independent clause can also begin with a transitional phrase or a conjunctive adverb (mnemonic device: This Scab Is Crustily Coming Apart Because We Aren’t Through Picking On A Cut Arm):

Let’s get it on; however, let’s not get it too far on.

Again, we could make this into two separate sentences, but we won’t this time. Instead, we’ll replace the conjunctive adverb (“however”) with a coordinating conjunction (“but”), thereby enabling us to use a plain old comma to separate the two clauses:

Let’s get it on, but let’s not get it too far on.

You will notice that “but let’s not get it too far on” cannot stand on its own as a sentence very well. As you can see, coordinating conjunctions can come in handy for people who fear semicolons and would just as soon dispense with this punctuation mark altogether, although you are presumably no longer among these people after having read this edifying information.

To solidify what you’ve learned and to refresh your memory of it at a moment’s notice, feel free to use the following song, which can be sung to the tune of “Marines’ Hymn” (“From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” etc.).

When two independent clauses
In one sentence must appear
This is not a thing that causes
Us to cringe or quake with fear
No, we merely keep on strollin’
Past the commas and the rest
For we know the semicolon
Is the object of our quest

Semicolonically,

Charles

Comments

  • km:

    I love to use the semicolon; it honors the hours of work we did in Catholic school.

  • Oops. Just sang that out loud. People are looooooking….

    • Rechelle:

      I had to sing it too Kat. For a grammar guy, Dear Charles has an amazing capacity for lyrical verse.

  • Martha in Kansas:

    Oh Charles! You make my heart go pitter-pat.

  • Martha in Kansas:

    I just taught this very lesson to my international students. Specifically, the use of a comma with “but” and a period/capital with “however”. (I ignored the semicolon.) Then I gave them a test with un-punctuated sentences to see if they could do the punctuation. Results: most of them changed the verb to incorrect or impossible tenses, some of them re-spelled words so they were wrong, some changed pronouns so they were wrong, and some thought the sentences were correct. MOST of them got NONE right. I think perhaps I could just as well shout the lessons out the window. Advice?

    • Charles:

      Martha –

      Perhaps you should try actually shouting the lessons out the window, as if to someone outside. Sometimes, people will listen with more interest to something they don’t think is meant for their ears. Actually, a better way to take advantage of this aspect of human nature might be to bring a phone to class and pretend like you’re talking to someone on it as you give the lesson. You should talk just loud enough for your students to hear, but you should give the impression that you’re trying to be quiet enough to keep them from hearing. Your tone should suggest that what you’re saying is connected with some personal crisis. Each time you approach a significant point in the lesson, you should raise your voice as if you’ve become so absorbed and agitated that you’ve forgotten that your students are present or that you’ve ceased to care that they might hear you. Then, as you draw near the most important part of the crucial lesson point, act like you’ve suddenly realized you’re in a room full of people and abruptly lower your voice to the earlier level as you deliver the key line.

      Alternatively, you could have your students compete for a valuable prize to be awarded for the most dazzling display of lesson comprehension, or you could make extensive use songs, cute little rhymes, and mnemonic devices.

      • Martha in Kansas:

        Thanks, Charles. The phone ploy sounds enticing, given their phone addiction!

        On the other hand, they are so absorbed in their own conversations that some of them don’t notice that class is starting, so I doubt they’d even notice what I was saying.

  • Martha in Kansas:

    Oh, and I once heard a research report you might find amusing. Long ago, so the details are fuzzy, yet the overall result still remains implanted in my useless brain.

    Some poor researcher read an astounding number of essays written by native speakers of English and an equal number written by students whose first language was not English. (Like 800 essays of each type. Or so.) In the native-speakers’ essays, something like 10% of them had one or more semi-colons. In the non-native-speaker essays, something like 80% of them had one or more semi-colons, with about 50% having 2 or more.

    Which confirms what all ESL teachers know. That our students think semi-colons are like salt. To be sprinkled generously to give flavor. Thus, I ignore them (the semi-colons, not the students) and when pressed, I tell them to NOT use semi-colons at all.

    Wasn’t that fascinating? They pay me to think these deep thoughts.

  • Robbyn:

    Hi Charles, what an enjoyable section of the Rechelle blog :)

    So I now submit three questions oh for the heck of it…

    1. Is Santa an independent Claus thus requiring the use of a semicolon?

    2. How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?

    3. Why in the blue blazes are several of my relatives from this good ol’ USA deciding that Uruguay is now suddenly a great place to relocate their entire families to? (I realize I have perpetrated the grammatical “dangling participle” but what the hey…) URUGUAY??

    • Charles:

      Hello Robyn.

      1. It’s my understanding that Santa is dependent on the money of Mrs. Claus, who is the only surviving member of the Fornsworth family, who made a fortune with the largest bootlegging operation in the United States during prohibition. It’s estimated that Mrs. Claus still has enough left to indulge Santa in his Christmas Eve ritual for another 34 years, especially since the Clauses live in an area where housing is inexpensive and employ slave labor to manufacture the knockoffs of name-brand merchandise that are delivered to good little girls and boys on that magical evening each year. Mrs. Claus is an independent Claus, but she wouldn’t need a semicolon unless she were appearing in the same sentence with another independent Claus, Klaus, or clause.

      2. There are many factors to consider in calculating how many licks it would take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop. For one thing, the Tootsie Roll center is rarely squarely centered in the Pop, so depending on where you start, you may be able to reach the “center” in just a few licks, or it may take you thousands of licks from another angle. Also to be taken into consideration are the wetness of your tongue, the wind speed and temperature, and your licking speed. Obviously, if you’re salivating like a German Shepherd on a hot day and it’s a hot day with negligible wind and you’re zipping along at 100 licks a minute, you’ll reach the center faster than you would if your tongue were as dry as slightly moist sandpaper on a freezing windy day and if you paused for an hour between licks. I hope you got bored and skipped to number 3 a couple of sentences ago so that you don’t find out that I really have no idea how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.

      3. It is a little mystifying that your relatives are all suddenly so hot to move to Uruguay. I figure it must have something to do with their finding something repellant about the USA and/or something attractive about Uruguay. Did all of these relatives get this idea independently, or is it the brainchild of one particularly persuasive relative? Is this some sort of a national trend I’m not aware of, or perhaps of which I’m not aware? Have you asked your relatives why they want to move to Uruguay? If so, what did they say? If not, please ask the relative who’s the most enthusiastic about the idea and report back.

      • Robbyn:

        Ah, thank you, Charles, for your insights to my questions!

        1. You’ve cleared up most of the Santa “clause” dilemma for me, except for the remaining question of exactly what the correct grammatical procedure would be in the event Santa is having his yearly semicolonoscopy…

        2. Re: the Tootsie Pop quandry, I’m a sucker for impossible questions, and predictable puns :)

        3. A variety of reasons have been given but still don’t add up. I’ve eliminated any Jim Jones-esque scenarios as possibilities but still am wondering if there’s not some swarthy personal trainer named Ramon who’s responsible for the sudden interest….

        4. If the basic English rules suggest voiding colons and semicolons from overuse with too much regularity, would that suggest that over-punctuation is the grammatical equivalent of a heaping bowl of All Bran?

        Thanks Charles!

        Robbyn

        • Charles:

          Robyn –

          1. The rules of grammar and punctuation magically disappear when Santa is put under for his semicolonoscopy at about 6:15 p.m. Greenwich Mean time every June 22nd. Folks all over the world use the opportunity to craft identification plaques emblazoned with the family name (e.g., “The Smith’s”) for their homes.

          2. That was one question I just couldn’t lick.

          3. I might have known Ramon was behind this. What kinds of lies has he been feeding your family?

          4. If basic English rules suggest voiding colons and semicolons from overuse with too much regularity—and I’m not saying they do—then it seems that overpunctuation would not have the desired voiding effect and would actually be more like a heaping bowl of cheese, which, as you know, is delicious.

  • Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
    ~Kurt Vonnegut

    • Charles:

      Well, there’s something to be said for showing you’ve been to college (especially if you haven’t), but I can’t think what it is.

  • Kait:

    I am sorry, but doesn’t the fact you used a Kurt Vonnegut quote mean you are one of those “I WENT TO COLLEGE” people?