Tag Archives: Semicolon

Punctuation: It’s not just for emoticons

PunctuationToday is National Punctuation Day, on which we celebrate the useful tools around the edges of our keyboards. Some — such as , and . —  we use all the time so they are closest at hand and do not even require using “shift.” Some, such as ; , have enjoyed a renaissance through emoticons. And some, such as , are so rare that a writer must consciously choose to use them and jump through some typing hoops (or creatively copy-and-paste) to get them.

But all of the marks have their functions, and good writers know how and when to use them. Punctuation guides the reader and provides clarity. It doesn’t do all the work in terms of making writing clear, but it certainly helps.

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Happy National Punctuation Day!

semicolonToday, Sept. 24, is National Punctuation Day — admittedly, a created holiday, like National Donut Day, and, like National Donut Day, it’s a holiday that celebrates something worthy of celebration. (Yes, there are seven commas in that sentence. Plus a dash and an apostrophe, and the obligatory period.)

Punctuation is like road signs for writing. It tells us where to stop, where to slow down, when a turn is coming, and when rocks might be falling on us (well, not really). It helps readers get where they are going smoothly and safely.

But punctuation is a fairly recent development; in English it’s been around for a few centuries. Look at old manuscripts and you’ll see writing with no spaces, no punctuation and no capital letters. It’s hard to read. It’s slow. It’s confusing. Once punctuation arrived, though, it wasn’t set in stone: the rules have been changing over time. Read Victorian English literature and you’ll see semicolons sprinkled in places they aren’t seen today. Regardless, the reason for using punctuation is to make writing easier to read and easier to understand.

As M. Alderton Pink put it, “Bad punctuation is, in fact, a form of bad manners.” And, like many matters of etiquette, certain aspects of punctuation are open to debate: Oxford comma or not? Are semicolons elegant or awful? Should we get rid of apostrophes? (Read James Harbeck’s modest proposal “Kill the Apostrophe” and MedEditor’s response.)

Others, however, are not. Commas in the wrong places can confuse, mislead or even cost you a million dollars. Apostrophes in the wrong places make a writer look sloppy or ignorant, or can even affect your love life.

Properly used punctuation helps make writing clearer, and clarity is always good, so for that reason alone it’s worth a holiday.

To celebrate, you can:

Never fear the semicolon

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Feb. 23, 2010

The semicolon is a much-misused, often maligned, but elegant and useful piece of punctuation. Neither a period nor a comma, the semicolon links in some instances and divides in others. There’s no need to be afraid of it; there are only three main instances when you need to use a semicolon. Well, more like two and a half.

1. When you have two complete thoughts (independent clauses) that are closely enough related that they should be in the same sentence. How to tell if a semicolon is appropriate: You could put a period in and get two grammatically correct sentences. You can do this if you like, but if you want to indicate a closer relationship, put the two clauses in the same sentence with a semicolon between them. If you use a comma, you need to add a coordinating conjunction — and, but, or, etc. — or you’ll end up with the dreaded comma splice.

aliens-ate-my-buickFor example:
“I’m taking the bus to work this week; aliens ate my Buick.”
You could say “I’m taking the bus to work this week. Aliens ate my Buick.” and each of those two sentences is grammatically correct. But the fact that you’re riding the bus and giving the reason for that are connected, and best put in the same sentence. So you use a semicolon to do that.

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