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Saving the Endangered Semi-Colon

Let me set something straight right away.

This page has nothing to do with colonoscopy.

Semi-colons—nothing remotely resembling lengthy, twisting, sausage-like colons—is our subject.

Semi-colons. People hate them almost as much as hyphens.

Or as colonoscopies(Given a choice, always take colonscopy over sigmoidoscopy—the former is more comprehensive—that is, it goes farther, which is okay, as it is mercifully flexible, not straight as a broomstick, like the sigmoidscope. The victim, under colonoscopy, is not nearly as fully consciously, intensely aware of the balloon-ended intruder. In both instances that balloon prevents anything from escaping, if you get my drift. But under sigmoidoscopy the victim—fully conscious—is relentlessly twisted this way and that as the intruder fiendishly spurts something hot and cramp-inducing, the victim impossibly filled and cramped and willing to confess to anything at all, just so it will stop; if you have any choice at all, friend, choose colonoscopy.) .

Harumph. We are talking about semi-colons here. I wonder if they even teach semi-colon science any more? You may recall that they look like this:   ;   Harmless enough—just a dot hovering like a square full moon over a comma.

In fact semi-colons share the comma's purpose, which is to provide a little stop in the flow of a sentence, but with a difference, of course. Otherwise they'd be the same mark, wouldn't they?

Semi-colons are stronger than commas. Mas fuerte. The stop provided by a semi-colon could be considered, if heard in spoken words, as though the speaker had paused to take a little breath—not as much as a pause for the end of a paragraph (or at a change of subject), but more than the very small pause for a comma. That stop is heard in speaking.

In fact, both commas and semi-colons came about as punctuation marks to mirror the pauses people naturally put into their words as they speak.

If you listen carefully to the cadence of your words, you will notice that you don't necessarily pause at the end of a sentence—that is why hearing a foreign language spoken sounds so "blithering" and frantic to one who does not speak it; it sounds crazily rushed and jammed together because people do not stop at the ends of sentences. But they do have to have places to catch their breath or emphasize a point, and so punctuation marks were invented in print to reproduce these pauses.

As the language and its printing have progressed, use of these punctuation marks has also changed. No longer necessarily mirrors of how people speak, they now function as indicators of sentence structure.

They went from form-based

to structure-based.

Meaning that the rules of punctuation now determine where punctuation marks go, based on sentence structure. That concept is easier to understand if you have ever diagrammed a sentence. I don't think they make kids do that any more; I believe it was fairly universally despised, even by such budding word-mongers as myself.

An unintended but foreseeable consequence of dropping the despised sentence-diagramming is the all-too-common failure to grasp sentence structure. So such difficulties with punctuation are hardly surprising.

So it goes.

Back to the present (not the future). In writing, how can we know when to use a semi-colon, especially as compared to a comma? For the answer, go back to the past. Listen to the rhythm of the words in your head.

When we talk we don't just babble nonsense; some of the content of our information is delivered to the hearer through the rhythm of our words.

You might have noticed that that last sentence contained a semi-colon. It did not contain a comma because the stop between the first clause and the second (both independent, by the way—each could stand by itself as a complete sentence) is too intense.

Here is the critical piece of information about semi-colons: Stops that come between two independent clauses, clauses that could stand by themselves as complete sentences, need something stronger than a comma.

A comma just can't hack it.
Such stops, which are stronger than those marked by commas yet not quite indicative of change of subject or over-and-out, could have one of three punctuation marks marking them, as illustrated below:

A semi-colon works:
When we talk we don't just babble nonsense some of the content of our information is delivered through the rhythm of our words.
As does a dash (formally known as an "em dash"):
When we talk we don't just babble nonsensesome of the content of our information is delivered through the rhythm of our words.
Or a period:
When we talk we don't just babble nonsense.   Some of the content of our information is delivered through the rhythm of our words.

When you insert a comma between what in the last example is perfectly adequate as two sentences, the poor little thing is overcome. It is just not lusty enough to hold the two clauses properly apart, and what you get then is called a run-on sentence.

It sounds in the mind like an overzealous salesperson who, in his rush to sell you that low-mileage used car in the ever-diminishing space of his 30-second spot, dares not stop to take a breath. His frantic words, tumbling all over themselves without the dignity afforded by the proper pauses in their rhythm, make us nervous.

In such a case, we might want more than a semi-colon that only slows him down. We might long for something to stop him, period!

Iggy Gold
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