Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Writing for Grammar: Using Semicolons

The semicolon is used to separate major sentence elements of equal grammatical rank by taking the place of conjunctions such as: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so (FANBOYS).

Option 1: Injustice is relatively easy to bear, but what stings is justice.
Option 2: Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.

H.L. Mencken wrote Example 2. It joins and contrasts the elements better than the awkward comma or the conjunction “but”.

Failure to use a semicolon can result in the dreaded comma splice. “Most agencies offer a limited number of services, Global Megabucks Inc. offers the broadest selection in the industry.”

The comma in the above example should be replaced by a semicolon, or the phrase should be broken into two complete sentences.

The other main use for a semicolon is between items in a series that contain internal punctuation so we can keep them all straight. “The farmer fed grain, oyster shell, and kitchen scraps to the chickens; bones and dry food to the dog; hay, grass, and corn to the cattle and sheep.

Next time we will look at some common semicolon mistakes and how to avoid them.

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