A Proofreader’s Guide to the Semicolon
Last week we looked at precisely what I meant by ‘a proofreader’s perspective’ on grammar. You can read that post here. If time’s a little tight, here’s the ‘nutshell’ version. A proofreader should only concern themselves with the correct/incorrect uses of grammar, language and punctuation. You are not trying to improve a piece of writing – that would be an editor’s task – you are there to highlight errors and give instructions as to how they should be corrected.
We’re looking at the semicolon today. We’re going to be considering it objectively. Wrong and right. If we were to bring our subjective opinion to bear on a piece of writing containing a semicolon, we could find ourselves in the middle of a heated debate that’s been raging for decades.
For example, this is what the great novelist Kurt Vonnegut had to say about semicolons in his 2005 memoir ‘A Man Without a Country’:
“Here is a lesson in creative writing. The first rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
The crime writer Donald Westlake (who, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, penned the incomparable ‘Parker’ novels) is a keen advocate of the semicolon. However, in defending his use of the semicolon in ‘The Man with the Getaway Face’, he acknowledges that its use is more as a stylistic device than as a grammatical necessity. In response to an editor removing the semicolon from a sentence, he says, “Breaking the offending sentence into two sentences is grammatically correct but… rhythmically wrong.”
Two exceptional writers. Two completely different views on the value of the semicolon. If, as a proofreader, you get yourself in the middle of that little debate, you’re going to lose a lot of valuable proofreading time!
So, we’re going to be looking at how to spot:
Let’s start with the first of those: the inaccurately employed semicolon. Before we can do that, we need to be clear about the purpose and ‘correct’ use of the semicolon. A semicolon is used to connect two related but independent clauses. In other words, two clauses that can stand alone, separated by a period but that are so closely related there’s an almost intuitive urge to reduce the length of the pause between them.
Examples of Semicolon Usage
I hate ice cream. It makes my brain hurt.
I hate ice cream; it makes my brain hurt.
Both of the above are correct. There is an argument to be had about which is better, but that’s someone else’s problem.
The following, however, is incorrect:
I hate ice cream; because it makes my brain hurt.
The use of a conjunction and a semicolon is plain wrong. Put your red pen to work. There is no debate to be had. If you see a semicolon immediately followed by and, but, or, nor, for, so or yet, it's wrong.
The following is also incorrect:
I hate ice cream; elephants are my favourite mammal.
There is no connection at all between these two clauses, beyond the notion of likes and dislikes. That being said, if this is a work of fiction and the writer is trying to demonstrate the character’s terrible concentration span, it might actually be a very effective device! This is why proofreading fiction or, worse, poetry can be a bit of a nightmare.
The following is… debatable:
I hate ice cream; my favourite food is bananas.
In this case, I would argue the two clauses are not closely enough related to warrant a semicolon. The writer might argue otherwise (she’s talking about food likes and dislikes). In this case, we move on. There’s no error here (no conjunction for example) and the clauses are sort of related. It’s for the writer and editor to fight this one out.
Now let’s look at where the absence of a semicolon can be problematic. We’re talking about lists here. Or, more to the point, lists which containing additional information that requires the use of a comma.
Examples of Semicolon Usage in Lists
My favourite writers are Alan Moore, the author of the Swamp Thing comics and the novels Voice of the Fire and Jerusalem, Stephen King, whose written too many books to mention and William Blake, English poet, painter, engraver and visionary.
Now, this sentence can be read and easily understood but it’s grammatically problematic. It should read:
My favourite writers are Alan Moore, the author of the Swamp Thing comics and the novels Voice of the Fire and Jerusalem; Stephen King, whose written too many books to mention; and William Blake, English poet, painter, engraver and visionary.
In other words, if we’re listing things and at the same time using commas to insert additional information, the semicolon comes into play as a kind of ‘super-comma’.
Also, it’s worth noting that when being employed as a super-comma, the semicolon can precede a conjunction.
J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter Farewell Tour’ will visit the following cities: Louisville, Kentucky; Huntsville, Alabama; Columbia, South Carolina; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Atlanta, Georgia.
As a proofreader, you will need to make for deletion:
You will need to add a semicolon:
And that’s it, other than to say:
I’m not a fan of semicolons; they’re a pain the backside.
See you next time.
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