Floyd Hyatt and the Semi

Semicolons, that is. Semicolons are my second-favorite punctuation mark, right after the Oxford comma. Or, wait! Maybe it’s the exclamation mark!

Anyway, here it is:

according to F. A. Hyatt

Semicolons probably cause more confusion and misery than all the other punctuation marks combined but they’re really not awfully difficult to master.

The semicolon has only two nominal uses. The first is to separate the items in a list, often after a colon, especially when the listed items contain commas:

“The following books will be covered on the midterm: the Odyssey, through book 12; Ovid’s Metamorphoses, except for the passages on last week’s quiz; and the selections from Chaucer.”

The semicolon makes it clear that there are three items, whereas using commas to separate them could produce confusion. In other words, they are used somewhat like sub-point separators or indents in an outline. Think of it visually as:

Covered on the midterm:

1 ()The Odyssey

(,) through book twelve

2 (😉Ovid’s Metamorphosis

(,)except for the last passage

3 (😉 and selections from Chaucer.

The other legitimate use of a semicolon is to separate two independent clauses in one sentence. (Clauses that can stand alone because they have their own subject noun or pronoun, and their own object.) Example:

Shakespeare’s comedies seem natural; his tragedies seem forced.”

Here’s how to tell whether a use is appropriate. If you can use a period and begin a new sentence, you can use a semicolon. In other words, this kind of semicolon can always be replaced by a period and a capital letter. In the example, “Shakespeare’s comedies seem natural. His tragedies seem forced” is also correct, so a semicolon can be substituted. (If you used a comma: “Shakespeare’s comedies seem natural, his tragedies seem forced” — you’d be committing the sin of comma splice.)

It’s risky to use semicolons anywhere else. There’s no need for them after “Dear Sir” in a letter (where a comma or a colon is preferred).

Don’t use them before a relative pronoun. For example it is wrong to write:

“She sold more than 400 CDs; which was better than she hoped”

It should be writ with a comma, since the bit after the semicolon can’t stand on its own.

“She sold more than 400 CDs, which was better than she hoped”

Thank you, Mr. Floyd. The semicolon is a sadly under-appreciated piece of punctuation; I’m happy to see it given its due.

Please remember that my short story collections are FREE this month (July, 2012) at Smashwords: LONNIE, ME AND THE HOUND OF HELL, THE KING OF CHEROKEE CREEK, and MA’S MONTHLY HOT FLASHES, each with the coupon code SSWIN.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Rain comes after a long drought.


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I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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