Grammar Gremlins: The Care and Feeding of the Elusive Semicolon
The semicolon is a shy creature, inhabiting the fringes of the Endangered Punctuation List, occasionally venturing out to appear in a non-professional role as an emoticon. Its natural habitat is nonfiction, where it flourishes in history, biography, and academic works of all varieties.
It does not thrive in dialog, but may sometimes be found in fictional narrative. The semicolon is a solitary creature and does not travel well in a pack. It should be employed sparingly in your manuscript.
Feed your semicolon only closely related thoughts; unrelated ideas will confuse and frighten the little fellow.
There! Did you spot that one in its proper environment? The two thoughts in that sentence are each complete and fully capable of standing alone. The semicolon is the ideal glue to bind them together.
Do not compel your semicolon to unite unrelated thoughts. My cat is brown; I forgot to pay the electric bill. That is not a happy conjunction. Those two thoughts have nothing to do with one another, and the unfortunate semicolon is in danger of being torn apart, thrown under the mouse, destroyed by an impossible task.
Well, okay, maybe that’s a little overly dramatic. Your semicolon is, after all, a punctuation mark, and it will stay where you put it without nails, glue, or chains. It is not, however, just a punctuation mark. It is also a conjunction, and it does not play well with other conjunctions.
I recently critiqued some material in which this construction occurred repeatedly: This happened; but, then that happened. This is wrong on several levels (says the self-appointed representative of the Punctuation Protection Agency). The use of the conjunction “but” makes the second part of the sentence a dependent clause and therefore ineligible for a semicolon’s services. With the semicolon already acting as a conjunction, the sentence does not need another. And in the phrase but then that happened, there is no need for a comma.
Given the proper care and attention, your semicolon will be a faithful friend and helper, but use it only when and where appropriate. When it doubt, use two sentences and let your semicolon sleep in its corner for another chapter.