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English Lesson 21: Correct Use of Semicolons

August 23rd, 2008

semi-colon.jpgFollowing up on last week’s lesson dealing with the correct use of the colon, we will now move on to usage of the semicolon, a punctuation mark that dates back to the 16th century. This article will be relatively short because there are fewer uses for the semicolon than for the colon; there are also no other common meanings for the same word.

The semicolon has four basic uses in English:

  • Semicolons are used to connect two independent clauses (in other words, two groups of words that can stand alone as complete sentences) together without using a conjunction such as and or but. Note that the two sentences should be relevant to each other:
    1. I submitted my comment on the other blog; it was immediately placed in the moderation queue.

  • A semicolon may be used to join two independent clauses that are linked with a transitional phrase such as however, for example, for instance, and the like:
    1. I submitted my comment on the other blog; however, it went into the moderation queue, so I cannot be assured of obtaining my backlink until the other blog owner approves it.
  • Semicolons are handy for dealing with items in a list such as a series of dates or place names where internal commas are already present. In this case, the semicolon acts as a kind of “super comma” to clearly separate the individual items in the series:
    1. Three important historical dates to remember are July 4, 1776; July 14, 1789; and September 16, 1810, which are the dates for the American declaration of independence, the beginning of the French Revolution, and the Mexican declaration of independence, respectively.
  • Semicolons can be used to separate independent clauses that are linked by a conjunction in cases where the clauses already have internal commas. The purpose of the semicolon is to provide a stronger pause and make the sentence easier to read and understand.
    1. I submitted comments to 50 other blogs on the topics of paid surveys, blog monetization, and Internet marketing; but after passing through the obstacles of spam filters, captcha challenges, and manual approval processes set by the other blog owners, I was only able to procure 25 confirmed backlinks.

Other rules to remember:

  1. When a semicolon appears next to a word or group of words enclosed in quotation marks, the semicolon is placed outside of the quotes.
  2. Semicolons should not be used to separate parts of a sentence that are not independent clauses. If a punctuation mark is required, consider using a comma instead.
  3. In cases where using semicolons to join two or more independent clauses together would make the sentence very long and complex, consider breaking it up into two or more separate sentences. When writing articles or blogging for a general audience, it is advisable to keep your sentences down to a manageable length for the convenience of your readers.

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