GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: semi-colons

The post today is going to explore my most favourite of the misunderstood punctuation marks: the semi-colon. If ever a punctuation mark needed someone to champion its cause, it is the humble semi-colon, so often abused, so little understood. And if ever an English teacher liked to jump on a cause, I am that English teacher, championing the underdog. You may, by the way, want to call it a semicolon (but I think that looks ugly) or a semi colon (which I think looks like it’s in danger of drifting away from each other … semi    colon …. semi               colon …) and so I have hyphenated it because, well, I can. That, my lovely readers, is why punctuation is so flipping fun and so very individual. As long as you pick one version and stick to your guns, you are on safe ground. You might prefer semi colon or semicolon; that’s your prerogative. You know already my love of the hyphen.

I’ve written before about the semi-colon and you may find that post helpful at elucidating the numerous reasons why I love this dainty little marriage of a punctuation mark. So far, I’ve looked at how you can use hyphens and colons to help improve your technical accuracy mark, and the semi-colon completes the unholy trinity of trouble-makers.

In essence, whilst students may dash to use a colon, stuffing in lists hither and thither, they tend to leave semi-colons well enough alone.

I don’t know why that is.

Can you use the word ‘and’ to join two sentences together?

If you can do that, you can use a semi-colon.

So what do you need to know about the semi-colon?

First and foremost, it functions as a coordinating conjunction. That may well be meaningless to you. If I ask you if you know the word ‘and’, however, you’re sure to nod. If you know where the word ‘and’ goes, you are on the way to understanding the function of the semi-colon.

Coordinating conjunctions, then…

What those bad FANBOYS do is connect simple sentences of equal merit, weight or rank. The FANBOYS, by the way, are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. They join two simple sentences together to form a compound sentence.

You know simple sentences, I know. One verb and one subject.

Remember, find the verb first.

Sometimes that’s tough when they’re little auxiliary verbs like am, is, are, was, were and so on.

When you’ve found the verb, ask yourself ‘who or what [insert verb here]?’

Who or what was?

It was.

The passage continues with another simple sentence. One verb, had been, the pluperfect of ‘to be’, if you are of an enquiring mind. Who or what had been? School had been. 

When you stick two simple sentences together, you have a variety of ways to do it. One is with a FANBOYS.

Here, writer Betsy Byers has used the conjunction and – that most popular of FANBOYS.

Now, you’ll notice she’s used a comma before the coordinating conjunction. You may well have been taught that you don’t use a comma before the word and. And you don’t, if you’re British and you are writing a list. Or if the second bit relies on the first.

Comma headache.

This is why I hate the little beggars.

Can you see why?

Why, for instance, would it have been weird to write:

And you don’t, if you’re British, and you are writing a list.

An explanation for another time, I’m sure.

Anyway, back to the and.

Because a semi-colon is used to join two separate clauses (that means they could be sentences on their own if you replaced the , and with a full stop as they were earlier) you can use it wherever you’d use a , and. So Betsy Byars could have written:

I do, in fact, prefer the , and version to be honest. Just because you can use a semi-colon doesn’t mean you should. I think the semi-colon makes it sound more abrupt whereas the comma-and makes it sound more slow. That’s just my explanation. It sounds more natural with the and.

But you could use a semi-colon and it wouldn’t be wrong.

You can, of course, use and to join together two complex sentences. You can, of course, use them to join more than two simple or complex sentences, but that is where your head will start to implode and that really is to be avoided.

What does a semi-colon do that and does not?

First, it avoid repeating the word and. I mean, we get through a lot of those when we write. There are times when it’s purposeful or unavoidable, like if we’re writing a list or we want to make that list drag on.

One example comes from the David Mitchell article in The Guardian that I was using as an example of colon use:

There are two types of cosmetics, in my analysis. Lipstick and mascara. Oh, and blusher. Hang on: and powder and eyeliner and moisturiser and perfume and hairspray. Blimey, there are loads. And styling mousse and hair dye and spray tan and unnecessary surgery.

Why then does he use all of these ands? Surely he knows how to write more properly than this? That gives me a clue. It’s for effect. He wants those ands there. They act as little exaggerators that separate out all those types of cosmetics. They heap ridicule on his first assertion that there are only two types of cosmetics. They add to his feeling of astonishment that “there are loads”.

That is a time that I want an and. Also it’s a list, and you can’t have semi-colons in this type of list. It would be weird and ugly.

He does, by the way, include two semi-colons in this article. You can look for them if you are that way inclined. I’ll give you a clue: he’s using them properly in a list.

So where DO you use a semi-colon and where would it be appropriate to replace a FANBOYS?

It’s appropriate where you don’t want to imply an order or priority to the ideas. For instance where you are giving equally important facts. In a story, it’s loosely chronological so an idea can’t get upset just because it comes after another one. No offence to the other ideas that follow, it’s just how things happened.

Now let’s take non-fiction and non-chronological writing.

If I write:

The full stop marks the end of a completed thought. The semi-colon marks a continuation. 

The idea that comes second is quite literally second best. When we order our ideas in non-narrative writing, we choose a sequence or priority. The first one to show up is the most important, simply because it got there first. Unless we signal that our second, third or fourth ideas are the most important, through discourse markers such as more importantly, then the second-best idea may get hurt feelings if you put them second.

You’re laughing of course. You have never had to write an article about local florists that ended up causing a war.

Hearts and Flowers, based in Edenfield, provide bespoke wedding centrepieces and bouquets. Magnificent Blooms in Haslingdon cater for large events and are happy to provide aisle decorations, pedestals and even wedding arches. 

Can you see how going second might not make my fictional ‘Magnificent Blooms’ quite so happy? You think I’m joking, but you’ve never had to face a 40-minute tirade from an irate business who really didn’t want to find themselves second.

A semi-colon stops some of that aggravation. It says, quite simply: THESE THINGS ARE EQUAL.

So for that reason, if you are trying to show that the idea following is only there because one of them has to come second, but that doesn’t imply that it is of lesser importance, the semi-colon is what you are looking for.

Semi-colons are great little pivots that provide balance and equilibrium in a sentence:

‘Storm on the Island’, written by Seamus Heaney, explores the power of nature in a land torn apart by unmentioned civil unrest; ‘Exposure’ by Wilfred Owen makes more direct reference to the backdrop of war but focuses on the soldiers’ battle against an all-powerful Nature which seems intent on killing them all. 

A semi-colon tells your reader that you are comparing or contrasting ideas.

So how do you use them safely?

Firstly, you need to make sure that what you have on both sides is a full sentence. There are exceptions to this, but you need to work with stabilisers on for a bit before you ride solo.

Secondly, it can always be replaced by a full stop.

Thirdly, you should be able to replace it with an ‘and’. Or a ‘but’. Or any of the other FANBOYS

So if you abide by those three simple rules, you should be safe. Remember that the semi-colon replaces the FANBOYs: you don’t need both.

You also need to remember not to over-use them

A colon directs you only one way – forward, into an explanation or embellishment. A semi-colon can direct you in any number of ways: a comparison, a contrast, a balance, a pivot, a twist or two (or more) parts of a single idea. Semi-colons imply a close relation between ideas, which a full stop does not. A full stop is a divorce of ideas; a semi-colon is a marriage of them.

You can also use them before discourse markers such as however, nevertheless, also, consequently, therefore and so on – as long as there are two full sentences on either side.

I tried the beef and onions, as you suggested; however, they disagreed terribly with my digestion.

The film was a tawdry romance with dialogue verging on saccharine at points; nevertheless, I enjoyed it all the same.

I found I could not get on with Thackeray; therefore, I abandoned ‘Vanity Fair’ and took up with Dostoyevsky.

These ‘conjunctive adverbs’ need a semicolon before them in ways that the FANBOYS have a comma before them when they join two independent clauses together. Now there’s a nonsensy tech sentence I never thought to write.

You can find more conjunctive adverbs and some examples here and here

Next time, I go in search of the strategies you can use at GCSE to improve your use of sentences. Make sure you sign up if you want regular emails with these posts.

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Precision: semi-colons

To some people, the semi-colon is a hideous creature. Poet Michael Rosen is one of those people. He says the semi-colon is “neither fish nor fowl”. He means it has no point, no purpose. It’s neither full stop nor comma.

Now, I disagree.

A semi-colon is a beautiful, beautiful mark. Perhaps it is the most beautiful of all the punctuation, if you ask me. It is a pivot. It’s a beautiful little balance that joins together, marrying sentences together like an efficient vicar.

Of course, at the base of it, it sits where a full stop or a coordinating conjunction could go.

Consider this:

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic; dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Yes, it could be a full stop.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic. Dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Or it could be a conjunction.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic whereas dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic, and dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

The first alternatives are fine, but too matter-of-fact for me. There’s nothing really that tells you these ideas are connected, other than your own fine head. If you don’t have a fine head, I might want to tell you that there’s a little Alice-in-Wonderland mirror in that semi-colon where one thing is reflected in the second.

Let’s face it, we have punctuation to tell people what to do. It says stop. It says go. It says the tone has changed! Does it tell you my mood? It tells you if I’m feeling… uncertain. It tells you that I’m explaining something: punctuation is bossy. It tells you I’m disjointed – or disconnected. It makes sense of things like a man-eating tiger and a man eating tiger. It tells you that somet’ing is missin’ and it tells you how I, the writer, wants you to read something. It can add a little something (like when you want to put in additional thoughts) to your work. And if we didn’t have punctuation it would make it fairly hard for most of the population who would then have to ponder about where you would want them to stop or go or how you would want them to proceed because sentences are very important and punctuation is the stuff that makes them without them our words are just mushed up mess and we might as well not have anything at all which would make it a lot easier for some people to write but a lot harder for most people to read. Punctuation governs. It marshals. It is a busy little sheepdog rounding up all the crazy words that hang around a lexical field and makes them jump through hoops. It nips at their heels. It sends them in whatever direction you think they should go in.

Capiche?

Punctuation was invented for a reason.

It’s bossy and magical.

That’s probably what I like about it.

And the semi-colon has a beautiful purpose. Its purpose is to marry two ideas together. It reflects ideas. And it is beautiful. Make no mistake about that. It’s a ballerina of punctuation marks, pivoting and turning. It’s the point on which the whole sentence pirouettes. It dances; it turns. It allows you to make one point and lead a reader; it allows you to turn and make another. It forms a beautiful bond between two ideas; it marries them and links them forever in ways that a full stop can never do. A semi-colon brings clauses together; a full stop divorces them.

A semi-colon is therefore a beautiful wedding of a punctuation mark; do not let what one man has joined be torn asunder.

It doesn’t matter if the clause before comes loaded with punctuation marks of its own, like the humble (and almost ungovernable) comma; the semi-colon can cope with a sentence as long as you want beforehand, with as much non-stop punctuation as you care to use.

A semi-colon is mathematical; sometimes I like to ensure the clause before has the same number of words and mathematical cadence as the clause after it. Sometimes I like to use it to be playful in ways that most other punctuation isn’t.

It’s a misunderstood mark. It’s so much easier to use than a comma (and you can check out the centuries-old arguments about the Oxford comma if you disagree) and it’s so clean and perfect. It makes the reader work to my rhythm.

Kurt Vonnegut said that the only reason to use a semi-colon is to show you’ve been to college. He might be right. But a semi-colon does things that other marks just do not do. No, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules about where it should go (though I’m pretty clear on where it can’t) and yet it’s so easy to use. It makes language dance. It is a beautiful and glorious shift-and-echo.

Consider:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
(Peter Drucker)

What I don’t like is how Mr Michael Rosen tries to use Dickens to further his argument: “I like to punctuate them [sentences] with full stops and not semi-colons. I got this from a writer I like. His names is Charles Dickens.”

He is obviously forgetting the most beautifully-balanced semi-colon use of all:

“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.”

That’d be Dickens. See how he uses the semi-colon to reflect the ideas from the first bit into the second? It’s perfect for comparing two things.

So… rules (because the semi-colon has them!)

  1. You must always ask yourself if you can replace it with a full stop. If you cannot, you need something else. It has a little bit of that full stop in it.
  2. You should also ask yourself if you want to connect the two main ideas in the two bits on either side. Could you use and or whereas? If you can, a semi-colon will be perfect.
  3. Don’t feel like you need to write a list in order to show that you can use them. It looks rubbish and never works.

And those are the rules. Simple, aren’t they?

Now, bearing in mind that As and A*s write beautifully-crafted and governed sentences, you can see why this piece of punctuation can contribute to over-all A*ness. It’s all about making those words do what you want them to do, and punctuation is a deft way of controlling them, like a sheepdog around sheep.

Plus, if we had no semi-colons, how would I do this? ;)

An online wink is just about the nicest thing to do with a semi-colon. So yah boo, Michael Rosen.