Proofread Along with Rhube #3: Semi-colons

A excerpt from The Legend of Catherine of GawthwateLots of people think that semi-colons are some kind of arcane pedantry that will disappear with time. They are wrong. I am a big believer in language fluidity, but semi-colons are soooooo important, and understanding them will really help your writing style. Even something as simplistic as The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate can require the use of semi-colons in order for it to make sense and read comfortably. Admittedly, The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate is not going to be saved by judicious use of semi-colons, but they’re not miracle workers. Just very useful things.

So, let’s break it down: when should you use a semi-colon?

1. To separate list items, where the items themselves are complicated by commas

For example:

The meal involved passion fruit; apples, but only red ones; strawberries; and plums.

The list item, ‘apples’, has been accompanied by a qualifying, dependent clause: ‘but only red ones’. You can think of this kind of clause as functioning like an aside – you look away from the main thing you’re doing with the sentence to slip a little something to your reader that qualifies the main statement you are trying to make. The main thing that we’re saying in this sentence is that the meal involved passion fruit, apples, strawberries, and plums. But I also wanted to tell you that we’re only having red apples in this meal, so I’ve just thrown that in there as an aside on the ‘apple’ list-item.

We need a comma after ‘apples’ to distinguish the list item from the aside, but then we would be using commas to perform two functions in the list – delineating list items and delineating asides. And that would be confusing for the reader. She might have to pause and figure out what each comma means in context – she’s going to expect ‘but only red ones’ to be another list item, and she’s going to be puzzled when she finds that it is not. That’s going to disrupt the smooth reading of your writing. We don’t want that, so we replace all the list-item commas with semi-colons. Now the reader can clearly see where the list items are delineated from one another and where the aside is. It’s not fussy, it’s not pedantic, it’s helpful. This is one of the ways in which semi-colons can seem scary and foreign, but they actually make everyone’s lives much, much simpler.

Now, the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the quotation above is similar, but not the same as, the example of how I’ve used semi-colons in the screen-cap I took from The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate above. That’s because I wanted to give you a straightforward case of how to use semi-colons for list items. The LoCoG case is more complicated:

The meal involved passion fruit, apples, strawberries, and plums as starters; roast chicken and turkey as the main meal; and, for dessert, strawberries in cream.

What we actually have, here, are three separate lists within an over-arching list. I’ve listed both the total contents of the meal and the contents for each course of the meal. It’s a list where the list items contain lists themselves. So, again, semi-colons delineate the list items for the main list, and commas are used to delineate the list-items and sub-clauses within those. Once again, semi-colons are making life easier for the reader. Honestly, I swear, they seem complicated, but they are your friend.*

2. To join independent clauses in a compound sentence, replacing a conjunction

This is one of the things people mean when they tell you that you should use a semi-colon to join two sentences. That more general instruction is sort of right, but also not specific enough. It’s right in that a complete sentence should be an independent clause, so what we’re doing is effectively joining two clauses that could each be their own sentence, but we don’t actually want them to be their own sentences, because we want to suggest a closer relation between the two clauses than that would allow.

The trouble is that a lot of people aren’t clear on what an independent clause is, so they start using semi-colons to join clauses that are not independent, but they think of as being candidates for being sentences because fragment sentences (sentences that do not contain a subject, verb, and object) have become a common stylistic choice. (See last week’s PAwR to get clear on what independent clauses are.)

The other problem is that people don’t realise that they should not be using conjunctions at the same time as using a semi-colon. So you get things like:

It was the end of term; and Ro had a mountain of marking to do.

And that, my friends, is not right at all. Your friendly ‘ands’, ‘buts’, ‘ors’ and so forth are what we mean by ‘conjunctions’. We use them all the time to join a bunch of different clauses together and they are very useful little words. But in this case, the conjunction is redundant. Its job is being performed by the semi-colon, and that ‘and’ has no business hanging out in this sentence. Instead, it should read like this:

It was the end of term; Ro had a mountain of marking to do.**

The semi-colon tells the reader that there’s a bit more of a definite separation here than there would be if I were to just write: ‘It was the end of term and Ro had a mountain of marking to do’. Sticking an ‘and’ in here ruins that effect and is confusing for the reader. If you use an ‘and’ after a semi-colon, the reader starts wondering why you bothered with the semi-colon at all. It suggests to the reader that maybe you don’t think the second clause could be its own sentence after all. Getting rid of the ‘and’ clarifies this. It restores the sense of separate, but not that separate, which is what we want out of a semi-colon.

3.To join complex independent clauses in a compound sentence via a conjunctive adverb

OK, let’s break this one down.

What’s a complex independent clause? Well, it’s an independent clause (a clause that contains a subject, a verb, and an object) that also has a sub-clause (just like the aside we were discussing above in our list case). So, if we want to link a complex independent clause to another clause, we can do that with a semi-colon, but in this case we’re going to need to use something called a conjunctive adverb to join the two clauses.

What’s a conjunctive adverb? Well, it’s a word like ‘however’, ‘moreover’, ‘nevertheless’, and so forth. It’s conjunctive because it can be used to join two independent clauses, but it’s not a conjunction because it can be used to start a sentence***, as well as joining independent clauses within a sentence. It’s an adverb in that it modifies the phrase or statement that follows it. So, if you say ‘however, I ate the cheese’ it’s different from saying ‘I ate the cheese’, in that it tells me that whatever I said previous to ‘I ate the cheese’ is something that my eating the cheese undermines, undercuts, or is in some sense an exception to.

If we put all this together, a conjunctive adverb is one that joins two independent clauses in a way that specifies how the first independent clause relates to the second. So, let’s take a look at this example:

It was the end of term, and for her students, the work was done; however, for Ro, the work had just begun.**

We’ve got a number of things going on, here. The main content of the first independent clause is ‘It was the end of term’. Nice. We could join this sweetly and simply to ‘the work had just begun’. No semi-colons needed: ‘It was the end of term and the work had just begun’. But, as it happens, that’s not what I want to do with this sentence. I want to do the much more complex operation of explaining how the end of term means more work for Ro, whilst comparing this to her students, for whom the work is over. So, I need to qualify ‘the work had just begun’ by specifying that it is Ro for whom the work has just begun. I also need to add in that for some people (Ro’s students) the end of term means that work is done. So I want to join those two thoughts together – awesome! Semi-colon ahoy! But I don’t want to just throw these two complex clauses together, that might just be confusing. I need to add in something that tells you why I’ve chosen to conjoin two already complex independent clauses – namely, that I am comparing end of term workloads between Ro and her students. And that’s what the ‘however’ does for us.

And… that’s it. That’s what semi-colons are for. I know it seemed to take a lot of explaining, but once you’re familiar with the concepts involved, it’s just three simple rules:

1. To separate list items, where the items themselves are complicated by commas

2. To join independent clauses in a compound sentence, replacing a conjunction

3.To join complex independent clauses in a compound sentence via a conjunctive adverb

*One of the myths about semi-colons is that any list of more than three items should separate the list-items with semi-colons. That’s just plain wrong. It’s confusing for the reader and will make your lists read as more stilted than you intended. Maybe it’s a feature of writing that the longer a list is, the more likely one of the list items will be complicated by a sub-clause, and that’s what led some people to think that longer lists needed semi-colons regardless. However it arose, though, it’s false.

**Apologies, these examples are what I used to use when explaining grammar to my students. I’m lazy. Not everything is going to be about The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate.

*** It is becoming more common in informal writing (like this blog!) to start sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’, but this is less appropriate in most formal writing. The reason why you might want to do it is to give an impression more like speech (where we do not talk grammatically at all) or to create a sense of pace,like one’s sentences are running into one another. In all cases where a sentence starts with an ‘And’ or a ‘But’, the conjunction could be removed altogether or be replaced by a conjunctive adverb. However, this does give a distinctly formal tone, and many writers choose to start sentences with conjunctions anyway because they want to undercut that formal tone.

As a proofreader, I may occasionally let you have a conjunction to join complex independent clauses if I think there is a strong stylistic case, but I am far less likely to do so than I would be to let you start a sentence with a conjunction. Why? Because you’re already doing one thing to suggest that you want the independent clauses to share a closer relation than two sentences. Starting a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’ is another way of suggesting that you want the relationship between two sentences to be closer than normal. But combining a semi-colon with a conjunction is overkill; it’s redundant and confusing for the reader and I’m gonna take some convincing to see how you had a good reason for doing that.


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