Use a Semicolon to Save the Semicolon

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The semicolon is dying a slow death. The blue droopy line in the graph above is from Google Ngram Viewer–a very cool off-shoot of Google Books. Based on the books already digitized, the Ngram Viewer provides a simple service: display the frequency of a word or phrase in a corpus of about 5 million books from 1500 to present. (Also, you can type in multiple phrases and words to see a comparison of usage. My favorite comparison: ketchup v. catsup. Watch this great TED talk about the tool if you are curious to learn more).

But not just for words, the Ngram Viewer can tell us about the usage of the semicolon. From the graph, it’s easy to see that semicolon usage peaked in the late 1700′s and has slowly been declining since then. We do see an uptick again once we hit the 2000′s, but I think this might be from the rise in computer programming languages and books printed about how to write those languages (30/46 languages use the semicolon as part of their syntax).

Still why the decline in usage? What has lead to this drop in its popularity? One culprit is that the semicolon was overused in the past. Authors were giddy with semicolon love and they used it as much as they could. In non-fiction, and even fiction, from the 1700′s and 1800′s, the semicolon seems to be on every page and in every paragraph, like authors needed semicolons like trees need sun. So the decline in usage could be a reaction to its overuse and a trend to a more normalization and balance.

But our work is not yet complete. Will we leave this punctuation to the teens and the programmers? By learning about how to use the semicolon, you can revive this failing punctuation mark and ensure that it isn’t relegated only to winking smiley faces in texts messages and end-of-line markers in computer languages.

 

HOW TO USE

I. Semicolons connect closely related independent clauses

A semicolon can add needed variety to the structure and rhythm of your sentences. Instead of always combining independent clauses with a comma/conjunction duo, try a semicolon. Make sure that the two independent clauses joined together are closely related. That means, they should be on the same topic, even have the same subject.

Ice cream is a delicious dessert; I can’t eat it every day, though.

A semicolon can be effective in linking two independent ideas that are contrasting or in opposition too.

To err is human; to forgive is divine.

Cookies are good; ice cream is better.

II. Semicolons separate items in a list when the list-items contain commas

Semicolons can fill the role of a comma when items in the list contain commas.

I have lived in Mumbai, India; San Francisco, California; Prague, Austria; and Tokyo, Japan.

Watching Casa de mi Padre made me realize that The Three Amigos, a quirky comedy about silent film actors heading to Mexico to protect a town from bandits, was ahead of its time; that Will Ferrell, although not thought of as a dramatic actor, is dramatic when he wants to be; and that more movies in the U.S. will be made for the rising population of Latinos.

 

SHOULD YOU USE IT?

John R. Trimble, author of Writing with Style, gives three succinct reasons for using a semicolon:

1. A semicolon adds variety.

Always using conjunctions and commas to join sentences can become boring and repetitive. A semicolon can break up this repetition, can give your reader something different to look at, and can change the rhythm and pace of your sentences.

2. A semicolon allows for compact and concise sentences.

Semicolons allow writers to be efficient with space and to eliminate the need for polysyllabic words, like however, unfortunately, and because, when linking ideas. The sentence is distilled down to its essence with a semicolon.

3. A semicolon allows for unity.

The semicolon can add smooth, clean, quick transitions from one idea to the next. Sometimes a period breaks the action too much and a conjunction-comma pair is too messy and cumbersome. A semicolon can eliminate these problems by linking clauses in an efficient, coherent bundle.

 

If you need one more reason to consider using the semicolon, head over to The Oatmeal, which has a wonderfully silly, yet informative poster on the semicolon (Click on the image).

 

 Comma Usage: Administrative Tasks

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By Pizarros (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing quite sums up administrative work better than a pile of papers waiting to be organized and filed. Only a picture of the DMV with flickering fluorescent lights and endless lines could better illustrate the humdrum and menial that tends to pervade administrative work. But this characterization doesn’t present the full story. True, it is repetitive, and true, it can be menial, but administration in a large government or organization is vital to its success.

The real hurdle that has to be made for anything to go from big to ginormous, and still function properly, is organizational and administrative. A company must first identify the repetitive, routine tasks and then streamline and standardize them across all levels. Only by doing so, can the company expand across oceans and landmasses and employee or serve thousands, sometimes millions, of people. Furthermore, the classifying and standardization of administrative tasks allows the company or government to function at a higher level, dealing with the more complex issues that they will inevitably encounter.

The comma–the versatile little punctuation mark that it is–not only has more creative and independent tasks, but also rises to the occasion for the more administrative punctuation ones. And like the administrative work discussed, this use of the comma doesn’t involve any higher order cognitive skill or complex grammar processing. All you need is to know the times when a comma needs to do some administrative work in your sentence and put it to the job. That means no authorial choice; you have to use commas in these situations.

For a look at the other ways to use a comma, read these other articles: Comma Usage: Connector and Separator and Comma Usage: For Spicing It Up.

 

Commas with quotations

A common place to find commas is with quotations, either as a lead in or lead out. When citing a written work or directly quoting what someone says, a comma is used to lead into the quotation, that is, before the first quotation mark. Also, if the end quotation is not the end of the sentence, a comma will be used before the last quotation mark to transition into the rest of the sentence. There are examples of both below. (Note: colons can be used to introduce longer quotations as well.)

Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“I’ve set a record for guys that I can meet on OKCupid in one day,” lamented a woman sitting in a hip San Francisco coffee shop.

If another punctuation mark ends the quote, you do not need to use a comma.

INCORRECT: “Where are the lion cubs?,” asked the toddler.

CORRECT: “Where are the lion cubs?” asked the toddler.

 

Commas with dates

Commas are used in dates between the day and year. In some cases, though, you will not need to use a comma. It all depends on how you write the date.

COMMA: April 1, 1982

NO COMMA: April 1982

NO COMMA: 1 April 1982

 

Commas with addresses

Commas rise to do the administrative work of separating cities and states as well as states and countries. Additionally, commas separate the street address and the city.

San Francisco, California

New Delhi, India

1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20500

 

Commas with numbers

With large numbers, commas improve readability, allowing the reader to process the number faster. With numbers that only reach the thousand digit, the comma is optional, but after the thousand’s digit, definitely use a comma. Lastly, don’t use a comma with years–unless you are reading this in year 2,321,930 A.D.

8,343 (or 8343)

10,290

293,392,838,932

It is the year 2013.

 

Commas with salutations

 When writing a letter, the comma is used after the person’s name in the salutation. In formal letters, a colon can be used as well.

Dear Santa Claus,

I found out this year that you are not real. As such, I want all the cookies and milk back that you deceptively expropriated from our house.

 Comma Usage: For Spicing It Up

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Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

In our second installment on comma usage, we are spicing it up. And by “it” I mean our sentences. Often authors are looking for ways to add a little more detail, a little more information, and a little more context to their sentences. They use introductory words, prepositional phrases, appositives, and other modifying phrases to spice up a sentence. By doing so, authors can avoid writing more sentences and it allows them to vary the rhythm and structure of their writing. When spicing up sentences in this way, commas play an important role.

Go to first installment for more examples: ”Comma Usage: Connector and Separator

 

Commas with nonrestrictive (nonessential) words and phrases

Use commas to surround nonessential elements in your sentence. The idea behind this rule is straightforward enough: put a comma at the beginning and at the end of your nonessential information. But how do you know if the word group is essential or nonessential, restrictive or nonrestrictive?

This is one of those times in grammar and punctuation that the choice falls to the author. You must decide if the information you are providing is “restricting” the meaning of something so that your reader doesn’t confuse it with something else, or if the information you are providing is “nonrestrictive” and merely adds more information to the sentence.

Try this as a test: remove the phrase or words from your sentence. Does it change the meaning? Does the sentence now apply to something more general? If you answered yes, you found essential, restrictive elements in your sentence, and thus no need to use commas. But, if nothing really changes and your meaning is essentially unchanged, except that their might be a little less information in the sentence, you have found nonrestrictive, nonessential elements.

Let’s look at an example of a restrictive use and a nonrestrictive use of the phrase, “who are over the age of seventy”.

Seniors who are over the age of seventy are required to retake the driving test and eye examine before renewing their driving licence.

In the previous example, removing the phrase, “who are over the age of seventy,” would alter the meaning of “seniors.” Right now, the phrase is restricting the meaning of seniors to a select group–the ones over seventy–which is necessary for the meaning of the sentence to be clear. Thus the content of the sentence, and ultimately the author’s choice, dictate the use of commas.

Those two, who are over the age of seventy, meet at the cafe every morning to play chess.

In this second example, the phrase is surrounded by commas. Try removing the phrase from the sentence. Does the meaning remain intact? Essentially, yes, it remains the same. Although it might be a little more difficult to discern which two people the author is talking about, the phrase does not narrow or define something in the sentence. It is not essential for understanding the ideas conveyed. As such, the author used a comma before and after the phrase.

In addition, the words “that” and “which” can both be used to start phrases and clauses. As a general rule, use “that” with phrases and clauses that are essential to the meaning of your sentence, and use “which” with phrases and clauses that are not essential to the sentence. This is why a comma is used before “which” but not before “that”.

 

Comma with introductions

After introductory words and word groups, use a comma–just like in this sentence. There are many occasions when an author needs to preface the main content of the sentence with some information. That information can be a transition word or a phrase that clarifies the time or place of the content in the sentence. Sometimes the introduction is a subordinate clause that is helping to convey information about the main clause. Whatever the case, use a comma at the end the introduction.

WORD: However, she hasn’t been to work in a week, and I am starting to worry.

If a introductory word occurs in the middle of the sentence, make sure to surround the word with commas:

WORD: She hasn’t been to work in a week, however, and I am starting to worry.

PHRASE: In the summer of 1816, a “dry fog” hung over the northeastern United States dimming the sun allowing observers to see sun spots.

CLAUSE: Since farmers did not know the benefits of rotating crops in their fields, many farms went fallow due to a lack of nutrients in the soil.

 

Commas with parenthetical statements, contrasts, and asides

Authors like to include little asides, contrasts, and parenthetical information in sentences. This is information that interrupts the flow of the sentence, but does not change the essential meaning of the sentence. The reasons for adding information are numerous, but in all cases, commas are used to set off the information from the rest of the sentence.

After a long fall, and the winter wasn’t any shorter, the spring finally descended on Cape Cod bringing the first tourists and vacationers.

The simplest ice cream is made with dairy, sugar, egg, not by freezing cream.

 

Comma with tag sentences and direct address

A tag sentence is usually a question added to the end of a sentence. These tag sentences prompt the reader for a response or convey other information.

We should leave, shouldn’t we?

The package of ice cream will arrive today, I hope.

I think the solutions is a prime number, right?

Direct address refers to times when a person is directly addressed by name or when a group is addressed by name. In these cases, you will need to use commas to set off the direct address from the rest of the sentence.

Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today to remember our friend who has passed from this life into the next.

You will receive our decision, Gillian, later in the week.

Jeremy, my friend, you are too late for dinner, but just in time for ice cream.

 

Return next Tuesday for more rules on common usage. If you can’t wait until then, check out another article about commas: “Comma Usage: Connector and Separator.”

 Comma Usage: Connector and Separator

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Daniel Schwen, GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), via Wikimedia Commons

“A comma is just a coupler.”

“What’s that? A thing that makes couples?”

“I suppose so.”

Technically speaking, a coupler is the mechanism in the image above that connects one train car to the next. It also separates the train cars enough to keep them from knocking into each other. So, in a way, a coupler is something that makes couples. Another type of coupler is a comma (they almost look the same too). Commas can play the same role in a sentence–connecting or separating.

Issue

Within English, the comma has many roles and many uses, which can cause students trouble. Commas appear in writing a lot–almost as pervasive as the period–and since students see a lot of commas in writing, they tend to use the comma haphazardly whenever they are unsure what to do. If they feel like they need punctuation, but aren’t sure what kind, they use a comma. If students feel like they need to elevate their writing, but aren’t sure how, they use commas. This can be corrected, though.

Background

The word “comma”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the the Greek “komma” (κόμμα), which means “something cut off” or “a short clause”. The definition and origin of the word comma does hint at its purpose. But ultimately, as with any punctuation, a comma is a mark used to increase readability; a way to tell your reader how to read what you wrote–specifically, when to pause.

Rules

The comma is used in numerous situations in a sentence. Some of these situations require a comma and some of these situations depend on the choice of the writer. In this post, I want to focus on a the comma as a connector and separator. You’ll find that these are instances that require a comma, so no authorial choice here.

 

Comma + Coordinating Conjunction

A comma must accompany a coordinating conjunction when linking independent clauses. Instead of using a semicolon or a period to create a sentence that contains two subjects and two predicates, writers use words, like “and” or “but”, to join ideas and show their relationship.

So anytime that you find a sentence linked to another sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, or, for, nor, but, yet, so), you must use a comma.

Ice cream is delicious, and I smile when I eat it.

The state fair begins tomorrow, but I think that I will go on the weekend.

 

Comma in a series or list

Another very common way to use a comma is to separate items in a series or list.  The comma perfectly signals to the reader where one item ends and another begins.

The best ice cream flavors are rocky road, coconut, and dulce de leche.

Can you pick up eggs, a blue ball, nine apples, a piano seat, and eye glasses at the store when you go?

Debates rage over whether to put a comma before the coordinating conjunction in a list. That is the comma after coconut and seat in the examples above. I intend to write an entire article tackling this issue. For now, continue to do what you do, and if you don’t have something that you regularly do, start including the comma after the conjunction.

 

Comma with equal adjectives

Just like in a list of items, a comma should also be used when you have a list of equal adjectives. Equal adjectives are generally less common than other adjectives, like colors, numbers, and shapes, and each adjective equally and individually modifies the noun. However, with the more common adjectives, which tend to stack on top of each other, each one describes the next in turn, until arriving at the noun.

The deft, nimble, aged hands of the carpenter quickly whittled a small doll for the young girl.

In the sentence above, the words deft, nimble and aged each describe hands. The best way to know if you are using equal adjectives is to reorder the adjectives (“aged, deft, nimble hands”). If your phrase still makes sense, then use commas. Another test is to read your phrase with “and” inserted between the adjectives (“deft and nimble and aged hands”). If it makes senses, then they are equal adjectives. If it sounds strange, they are not equal, and you will not use a comma. For example:

I ate three red apples.

In the sentence above, if you reorder the adjectives three and red, the sentence will sound very strange (“red three apples”). Also, if you place the word “and” between them (“three and red apples), the sentence will sound strange. Thus these adjectives should not be separated by a comma.

The rules governing comma usage are extensive. We have only touched on three so far. Next week, another article on commas will look at some of the other comma rules.

 

The series on commas continues: “Comma Usage: For Spicing It Up.”