e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

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The Semi-colon

Here beginneth the second lesson in punctuation: the Semi-colon

It's much simpler than the apostrophe, really it is.  But it needs to be considered in the context of other possibilities and that may seem complicated.   It's not.

Think for a moment of a ball rolling down a ramp, and then coming to a stop at a barrier.  If the sentence is that ball, it runs straight ahead down the ramp and stops when it bumps into a full stop: a period.

"I got up this morning." 

You can write (rather jerkily) using nothing but short sentences, short ramps one after another:  "I got up this morning.  That was my first mistake."

If the ball, instead of rolling smoothly down a straight ramp, instead rolls down stairs with a landing in the middle, where it changes direction, it will bounce off the walls before going on down and there will be some bumps on the way.  The two half-flights of stairs are complete--they have a top, bottom, and all the steps in between.   As a sentence this model defines the combination of two complete thoughts squeezed into one sentence--where each part could be a short sentence.  The bumps on the way are where you need commas.  The bouncing on the wall of the landing is where you need either a conjunction, a semi-colon, or (in extreme cases) a colon.

"I got up this morning and that was my first mistake."   The same two complete thoughts, grammatically complete sentences, joined by a conjunction.   It feels easy to read, easy to understand; it's uncompressed, relaxed, open.  When you want to slow down or relax a passage, the conjunction is your friend.  But too many of them in a row (like too many short straight "ramp" sentences in a row" feel amateurish.  Once small children learn they can string thoughts together, they talk like that "I went to the zoo and I saw a tiger and I had an ice cream and I saw ducks and geese and I had a hot dog and..."    What we have here is not really the staircase with its landing, but a curving slide that can (if you're not careful) go on forever.

"I got up this morning; that was my first mistake."    Here's the semi-colon.   It signals the reader to expect a complete clause--subject, predicate--on each side of the semicolon, but it tells the reader (whether reading aloud or silently) not to stop...to leap over the semi-colon and connect the meaning of the second part to the first.   It's the equivalent, in driving, to a rolling stop.   Thus it is faster to read, it feels more compressed, more logical, even (depending on the rest of the sentences so joined) a bit abrupt. 

With care in crafting the sentences in front of it and behind it, a semi-colon can also make the whole more formal, less formal, more compressed, or more rhythmic.  It gives the writer flexibility in sentence length, tone, compression/extension, pacing...all good things to have.  Like any other tool in the writer's toolbox, it can be overused--but it's essential. 

Tags: grammar, punctuation, the writing life
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