Home
Subscribe | Order Our Book | More Articles

Using the Semicolon

Can you tell which of these sentences use the semicolon correctly?

  1. America has much to accomplish; more than we realize.

  2. The titles that medical paraprofessionals are given may differ; the complexity of their duties is the same, however.

  3. America has much to accomplish, however, we also have much to gain.

  4. The conference speakers were Jane Doe, president of Cyberpro Corporation; Jim Smith, superintendent of Richfield School District One; and John Doe, president of Southland Technical College.

Sentence 2 and 4 are correct. The semicolon is the mark of punctuation that is used to separate two independent clauses when there is no coordinating conjunction ("and," "but," "or," "nor," "for," "so," and "yet") between them.

To use a comma in sentence 2, which has no conjunction at all between its two clauses, would be to create the error that grammarians call the comma splice: the two clauses would be "spliced" (i.e., joined) when they need to be separated structurally. The comma is too weak a mark of punctuation to do that job; the sentence requires the stronger semicolon.

Sentence 4 is correct because it uses the semicolon in its second function: to separate items in a series when those items themselves have commas within them. Again, the comma is the weaker separator. Because we have used commas to separate each speaker's name from his or her title, the semicolon is necessary to separate clearly one unit of information from another.

Sentence 3 contains two independent clauses with a conjunction between them--the word "however," which is not a coordinating conjunction but an adverbial conjunction or a conjunctive adverb. (In sentence 2, "however" is simply an adverb; it is not functioning as a conjunction.) In such a case as sentence 3, the semicolon, not the comma, provides the strength of separation required by the two independent clauses.

This article continues right below the box.

Support this site!

If you value the information on this Web site, please help us cover our expenses. Thanks!

Sentence 1 is incorrect because it uses the semicolon not between two independent clauses but between one independent clause ("America has much to accomplish") and one dependent clause ("than we realize") that functions as an adverb ("more than . . .") modifying the verb has in the main clause: "America has more to accomplish than we realize." The ideas in these two clauses--one independent and one dependent--are not of equal weight, are not equally balanced in structure and meaning, the way that two independent clauses in any sentence are. Instead, they are logically and structurally intertwined with one another and thus do not need the semicolon to separate them.

Consider this sentence:

Reproduction is a characteristic of all living systems; because no individual organism lives forever, reproduction is essential to the continuation of every species.

Here we have three clauses, and some writers might be tempted to place the semicolon after "forever." But to put it there would be wrong: the subordinating conjunction "because" creates and introduces a dependent clause that modifies the verb in the second main clause: it tells why "reproduction is essential." The actual juncture between two independent clauses, therefore, occurs after the first independent clause, "Reproduction is a characteristic of all living systems." The semicolon is required after "systems" because that is the point in the sentence where we need strong logical and structural separation.

TEST YOURSELF

Check the punctuation in each of these sentences:

  1. Runners know they cannot win races unless they train regularly; something they may find increasingly difficult to do.

  2. It is not always easy to act on what one knows is right, it is even more difficult, though, to look in the mirror if one refuses to act.

  3. John has a serious problem; although we hope to help him, there is no certainty that he will do his part in the effort.

  4. Many companies have suffered in the wake of a sluggish U.S. economy, in the event of a recession, however, a number of them will be forced to close their doors.

ANSWERS:

  1. Runners know they cannot win races unless they train regularly, [comma, not semicolon, needed] something they may find increasingly difficult to do.

  2. It is not always easy to act on what one knows is right; [semicolon, not comma, needed] it is even more difficult, though, to look in the mirror if one refuses to act.

  3. John has a serious problem; [semicolon correct] although we hope to help him, there is no certainty that he will do his part in the effort.

  4. Many companies have suffered in the wake of a sluggish U.S. economy; [semicolon, not comma, needed] in the event of a recession, however, a number of them will be forced to close their doors.

    Copyright 2001 Get It Write

    More Articles