Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Brief Note on the Semicolon: Why the Freak Can't People Get This Right?

What the heck
is so confusing
about this?
I've noticed something about the semicolon:  No one knows how to use it anymore.

I don't understand the reason for this.  The rules have not changed.  It's not like the whole analog-to-digital TV thing, where everyone in the country was told there was going to be a massive change and notified during every commercial break for months in a row.

How is this singular piece of knowledge being lost?  How is it that a dot and a curved line mystify so many writers, editors, and proofreaders?

Let's consult a few sources:

  • According to the APA and the Chicago Manual of Style, you should use a semicolon to: (1) separate two independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction, and (2) separate elements in a series that already contain commas.
  • In an article for the New Yorker's website, Mary Norris relays an apt descriptor from a style book put out by an English firm:  "A semicolon links two balanced statements; a colon explains or unpacks the statement or information before it."
  • According to Merriam-Webster, a semicolon is a punctuation mark "used chiefly in coordinating function between major sentence elements (as independent clauses of a compound sentence)."
By no means is this an exhaustive list, but it's a start.  Now, let's focus on the ways people use it to link their thoughts incorrectly.  Here are a few examples I dug up at work:

SEMICOLON EFF UP #1:
Wrong:  Despite the fact that kids are well fed, exercised, and socialized there is still a problem that persists; oral health.
Corrected:  Despite the fact that kids are well fed, exercised, and socialized, there is still a problem that persists: oral health.  
Why the first one is wrong:  A semicolon connects two complete but closely related thoughts.  "Oral health" is NOT a complete thought.

SEMICOLON EFF UP #2:
Wrong:  You can tailor much of the desktop environment; for example, the background window.
Corrected:  You can tailor much of the desktop environment--for example, the background window.  
Why the first one is wrong:  The portion of the sentence after the semicolon is not an independent clause.  If you spoke it aloud, no one would have any clue what your context is.  Plus, there's no verb.  So there you go.

SEMICOLON EFF UP #3:
Wrong:  My favorite things to do in Hawaii are surf; hiking; and sailing.
Corrected:  My favorite things to do in Hawaii are surf, hike, and sail.  
Why the first one is wrong:  You mean aside from the non-parallel verbs?  SEMICOLONS ARE NOT COMMAS.

I beg of you...please pay attention when you use semicolons.  If you're in doubt, don't use one.  Much like nuclear missile launch codes, semicolons should never be deployed without complete and utter confidence in one's decision-making abilities.  If you're certain you want to use them, a few minutes of online research will give you great examples of what to do or not do.  Then read this, just because it's funny.  

In closing, I have to post a quote I found, written by some dude named Henry Marie Joseph Frederic Expedite Millon de Montherlant who wrote, "One immediately recognizes a man of judgment by the use he makes of the semicolon."  Too true, bro, too true.