The Oatmeal, or the man behind The Oatmeal, Matthew Inman, has done it again. First, he hilariously explained how to use an apostrophe, and now he has come to the defense—and perhaps rescue—of the much maligned semicolon, which he deems “the most feared punctuation on earth.” But, as “How to Use a Semicolon” literally illustrates with colorful cartoon gorillas and dinosaurs, there’s really nothing to fear about this punctuation mark.
It’s most commonly used to join two independent clauses. The term “independent clause” probably isn’t helping the semicolon’s case; it’s just a fancy way of saying “complete sentence.” We usually separate sentences with a period, but when they’re closely related (as in the previous sentence), the semicolon shows this connection.
If you weren’t aware the mark had been placed on the endangered punctuation list, here’s a brief history of the semicolon’s demise. Although modern technology has played a role (blame the costly telegraphs of the mid-1800s), it seems most people want to do away with the mark simply because they don’t know how to use it. Hopefully, this Oatmeal comic will help. Emoticons can’t do it alone.
Thanks to both Wendy and Scott for sending me this link.
In this series of posts, I’ll respond to questions about all things editing. I recently received the following e-mail:
In an assignment to correct sentence fragments and run-on sentences, my third grader wrote, ‘The crow believed what the fox had said, so she decided to sing for him.’ Her teacher corrected it to, ‘The crow believed what the fox had said. So, she decided to sing for him.’ What level of umbrage do you feel is appropriate? I’m having trouble finding a rule to cite, but at the very least prefer the uncorrected version.
I also had trouble finding a rule to cite. It’s tricky because “so” can be used as both a conjunction and an adverb to mean “therefore.” When used as a coordinating conjunction, as in the daughter’s example, a comma is used to join the independent clauses. When used as a conjunctive adverb, as the teacher has done, a semicolon or period is used.
I wish I could provide a more clear-cut answer. If my fellow editors have any insight to share, please do! (For the record, I prefer the daughter’s sentence as well.)
I’m sure many editors have dreams (or more likely nightmares) about punctuation, but have you ever wondered what punctuation dreams about? Author and language enthusiast Craig Conley has. The result is his highly inventive – and humorous – A Semicolon’s Dream Journal, which taps into the mind of this often misunderstood, and therefore misused, punctuation mark. If dreams are “the language of the subconscious,” Conley is the semicolon’s interpreter.