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The Seductive Semicolon ;)

Okay, that may be a bit of a misleading title – there’s nothing all that sexy about semicolons (except perhaps for those folks who are really into English grammar). The most suggestive thing you can do with this particular piece of punctuation is make a winking emoticon, which, of course, is not an appropriate course of action when you’re writing something for your professor or submitting for publication. Nonetheless, the semicolon has a number of uses which can be very handy. One of those uses is relatively common; the other two described in this article are not as well known. All of them, however, may prove helpful to you in your writing.

Use #1: Combining Sentences. The most commonly known use of the semicolon is to combine two closely related independent clauses. The above paragraph actually contains an example of this:

One of those uses is relatively common; the other two described in this article are not as well known.

The first part of the sentence (i.e., everything before the semicolon) is an independent clause, as is the second part of the sentence (i.e., everything after the semicolon). In other words, there are two complete sentences that, from a grammatical perspective, could just as well be divided by a period. The semicolon, however, links them together more closely than a period would. This function is especially useful when illustrating a contrast or a cause-and-effect relationship, as in the following examples:

The forecast predicts snow for tonight; however, the game is still scheduled to be played.

The city’s unemployment rate hit nearly 12% in March; therefore, the mayor decided to seek additional state funding.

Use #2: Dividing Complicated Items of a List. In most lists, commas are the go-to punctuation for separating the items. However, if each item is relatively complicated or contains punctuation marks, then a semicolon is a clearer way to separate the list. For instance:

Next semester I am enrolled in History 302: The Western World since 1800; History 343: Art, War, and Religion in the Middle Ages; and English 201: Rhetorical Criticism.

In the above example, a semicolon is appropriate because each item is fairly complicated and contains at least one punctuation mark. If the writer of the above sentence chose to simplify the course titles, then commas would be more appropriate:

Next semester I am enrolled in History 302, History 343, and English 201.

This function of the semicolon is also useful when listing complicated numerical items such as dates, as illustrated in the sentence below:

As a result, protesters gathered in front of the Capitol on January 2, 1962; February 11, 1963; and June 24, 1964.

The above sentence would be difficult to read if it used commas instead of semicolons, since there would be a cluster of commas and numbers all scrunched together without clear separation. (“As a result, protesters gathered in front of the Capitol on January 2, 1962, February 11, 1963, and June 24, 1964.”)

Use #3: Creating Parallel Structure. This isn’t just any kind of parallel structure. In fact, the majority of sentences with parallel structure do not require a semicolon. There is, however, one particular kind of parallel structure where the semicolon is needed. Consider the following example:

The buildings were silent; the streets, deserted.

In this case, the comma effectively stands in for the verb “were.” Another way to phrase the sentence would be to say, “The buildings were silent, and the streets were deserted.” Notice how employing the semicolon makes for a more efficient use of words. While the above example may seem purely poetic, this function can actually prove very useful when reporting data. For instance, if you conducted a study involving three groups of participants, you could report data in a sentence like this:

Group A showed 33% improvement; group B, 21%; and group C, 9%.

This construction saves a lot of space and repetition compared to the alternative: “Group A showed 33% improvement. Group B showed 21% improvement. Group C showed 9% improvement.”

To summarize, keep these three applications of the semicolon in mind:

  1. Combining Sentences
  2. Dividing Complicated Lists
  3. Creating Parallel Structure

And I suppose if you’re interested in sending flirty text messages, there’s the fourth and most ambiguous use:

4. Making a winky face ; )

But perhaps it’s best I save my emoticon advice for another post.

Proper use of the words your/you’re and whose/who’s

In the English language many words sound the same but have a different meaning or spelling. Two examples that are frequently misused are the words your/you’re and whose/who’s. In this sentence “Here is your hat” your is used correctly. But if the sentence read, “I like how your dressed” it would be incorrect. The correct word would be “I like how you’re dressed.” When in doubt, say out loud the words. You’re is a contraction of you are.

The same rule applies to the words whose/who’s. In the sentence “Whose hat is this?” Whose is used correctly. However, “Whose going to the store?” would not be correct. The correct usage would be “Who’s going to the store?” In other words, “Who is going to the store?” Again, saying the words aloud without the contraction will help in remembering the proper use.

Grammar Guts – Test Yourself!

Fill in the blank with the correct form of the verb provided (answers below). For example:

Question: _______ taken half a day _____ the museums, we ______ that we had little time left for ___________ around the rest of the city. (to have; to see; to find; to walk)

Answer: Having taken half a day to see the museums, we found that we had little time left for walking around the rest of the city.


1. If I ­­­­­_______ to go to Philadelphia on Friday, I could go to New York on Monday and return to Boston on Wednesday. (to be)

2. If I _______ to Philadelphia on Friday, I could go to New York on Monday and return to Boston on Wednesday. (to go)

3. My ­­­­­­­________________ was that there ______ no quiz on Tuesday; I had _____________ that it was to be ________ on Thursday. (to understand; to be; to understand; to hold)

4. ­­­­­­____________ that you did have the means to visit Florence, how do you _____ yourself ____________ your time? (to suppose; to see; to spend)

5. ______ that I ­­­am ____________ in __________ near the water, I would be ________ to pay extra for a condominium there. (to give; to interest; to live; to will)

6. Each of us ­­­____ asked _____________ to the fund for injured athletes. (to be; to contribute)

7. Every prospective buyer understood that there would be no ____________ over the price if the present owner ______ to decide to sell.  (to bargain; to be)

Answers

1. If I were to go to Philadelphia on Friday, I could go to New York on Monday and return to Boston on Wednesday

2. If I went to Philadelphia on Friday, I could go to New York on Monday and return to Boston on Wednesday

3. My understanding was that there was no quiz on Tuesday; I had understood that it was to be held on Thursday.

4. Supposing that you did have the means to visit Florence, how do you see yourself spending your time?

5. Given that I am interested in living near the water, I would be willing to pay extra for a condominium there.

6. Each of us was asked to contribute to the fund for injured athletes.

7. Every prospective buyer understood that there would be no bargaining over the price if the present owner were to decide to sell.