February 19, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: the poor semicolon

Posted in semicolons, semicolons and commas at 6:12 am by dlseltzer

Okay, last week, I was able to get my annoyance with folks always preceding the word, ‘which,’ with commas off my chest. ‘Which’ only demands a comma when the phrase starting with ‘which’ is not necessary for understanding the sentence.

There is something else that has been bothering me, so I thought I’d get that one out of the way this week. This is it: one piece of punctuation has been much used and abused, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Just stop using it when it isn’t called for. I’m talking, of course, about the poor semicolon—it doesn’t even get a unique name of its own—it’s just a semi version of ‘colon.’ And this is what bugs me:

In this study, we are examining the following characteristics: (1) race and ethnicity; (2) sex; (3) socioeconomic status (SES); and (5) geographic residence.

People (and you know who I am talking to; I am talking to YOU) people tend to think that if you have a list which is preceded by a colon, all items in the list are separated by semicolons. But what is wrong with this conceit is that it isn’t true! You only need the semicolons IF there are internal commas.

So the sentence above should be:

In this study, we are examining the following characteristics: (1) race and ethnicity, (2) sex, (3) socioeconomic status (SES), and (5) geographic residence.

And an example of a sentence needing semicolons is this:

We will also track the following: (1) online prescription refills; (2) secure messages sent and received; and (3) use of physician progress notes, laboratory values, wellness reminders, or appointments.

Because the last item in the list contains commas already, then each item needs to separated by a semicolon.

AND this holds true even in sentences that DO NOT include colons:

We will also track online prescription refills; secure messages sent and received; and physician progress notes, laboratory values, wellness reminders, or appointments.

Okay? This is the main thing that I wanted you to get. But the are two other uses for the poor semicolon that I will mention.

Use a semicolon to connect two related independent clauses (sentences) with no conjunction.

Phase 1 will involve the conduct of a literature search; phase 2 will focus on surveying physicians on their usual practices.

See? Simple.

Use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses (sentences) connected by a conjunctive adverb (transitional phrase).

Our findings support the use of social workers for some aspects of hospice care; however, a professional medical team is required to attend to health care needs.

And that’s it. Wow! I feel better already. Have a good weekend!

4 Comments »

  1. Brian said,

    I guess my question beyond these basic rules is when to actually use semicolons instead of a period or the conjunction.

    For example, in your first sentence, you could use a period or an “and” instead of the semicolon. In your second sentence, you could use a period before “however.”

    Is it when there is a shorter pause than a period when read? Just stylistic variations?

    Thanks!

    • dlseltzer said,

      The quick answer is if the content of the two independent clauses is closely linked, then use a semicolon, but it really is a style thing. I make these decisions based on how it sounds to me.

  2. Anonymous said,

    And look how you misused which. Oh, the irony.

    people tend to think that if you have a list which is preceded by a colon

    • Brian said,

      Looks OK to me. It’s not just any list. It’s specifically a list preceded by a colon. This is important to understanding the sentence. Hence, you don’t need a comma. Or did I miss something else?


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