Writing Tip Wednesday: The Semi-Colon

Dear Master’s Programs student,

It’s been a while since we looked at punctuation on the Master’s Programs blog, and I know this is a great source of anxiety for most of our students.  “I’m having punctuation withdraw,” many of you have lamented.  “Please, I’m dying for more rules on usage and mechanics!”

Fear not, friends.   This week we’ll examine the semi-colon, which can be confusing.  Is it a comma?  Is it a period?   Some weird hybrid of the two?  Actually, yes: the semi-colon was designed to create more pause than a comma, but less than a period.  (Now you have fun—albeit nerdy—trivia to share at your next dinner party.)

But what are the rules for this mysterious glyph?  First, and most importantly, it must have a complete sentence on BOTH sides of it.  Consider the following examples:
incorrect: I love reading the Master’s Programs blog; which has great writing tips.
incorrect: Whenever I have a writing question; I turn to the Master’s Programs blog.

correct: I love reading the Master’s Programs blog; it’s especially helpful when I have a writing question.

Next, the sentences should be related in meaning.  The second one can clarify or explain the first (as in the delightful example above), or it can provide contrast to the first, like this:
Wallabies are an excellent marsupial; opossums, in contrast, are totally repugnant.

Remember that a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) should NOT immediately follow a semi-colon.  A conjunctive adverb (words like thus, however, moreover, consequently, therefore) may follow a semi-colon, but they’re not mandatory.

incorrect: All jam is good; but plum jam is the best!

correct: All jam is good; plum jam is the best!

correct: All jam is good; however, plum jam is the best!

Just don’t get carried away with the semi-colon.  It’s like nutmeg—a little goes a long way, and you don’t want to overdo it.

Happy Writing!
James  😉

Post Script: Since we’re on the topic, here’s a piece of trivia: There are 14 punctuation marks in standard English grammar. Can anyone name them?   (Here’s some help from the West Wing.  Skip to 1:17 for the answer.)

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