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Lovely Barcelona at sunset, viewed from the top of our hotel. Not a semi-colon in sight. Jock Lauterer photo


Why anyone would come all the way to lovely Barcelona to write about semi-colons is lost on this writer; I didn’t set out to do this.

Rather, I’m just responding to a challenge from a grammar-wonky friend who inquired: What’s the definition and proper use of that officious little squiggle?

Forgive this veteran journalism ‘perfesser,’ but I can’t resist taking the bait.

An avid devotee of the classic “The Elements of Style,” I can just imagine what old Will Strunk might say in response to the query. Most likely something like, “Rule 12. Unless you know what you’re doing, avoid!”

For starters, here’s my succinct definition: “A semi-colon is a punctuation mark connecting two closely related independent clauses.”

But as a college journalism instructor, I can attest to that definition falling on deaf ears. Since they stopped teaching old fashion 8th grade grammar in most North Carolina public schools, many of my college students have never heard of, nor know nothing about, “the parts of speech.”

Thus, when I advise a college student to begin a sentence with a gerund, I’ll be met with a blank look.

A what?

As often as not, I find myself teaching basic English grammar to a 19-year-old.

Last semester, when one kid kept trying to use a comma in place of a period, or a semi-colon, I found myself struggling to make it all clear why a sentence such as the following example is just plain wrong:

The man went to the store, it was closed.

So, to make the lesson visual, I drew a little cartoon depicting two railroad trains, one following the other. And I explained that each train had to be led by an engine (the noun), pulling a coal car (the verb) with maybe a caboose (a direct object) at the end.

Pointing to the cartoon of the two linked trains, I explained that the semi-colon can be the iron link between the two separate trains. But a comma is too weak to do the job. I asked my student to imagine a simple rope stretched between the two huge trains; it would snap under the strain.

My student eyed my little choo-choo train cartoon and nodded in appreciation; she got it.

But wait. The role of the semi-colon is more nuanced that my first attempted definition. Let me add a second layer: the first independent clause is almost always the stronger, more dominant actor — as if loudly announcing the subject, and then the semi-colon follows to alert the reader, “Hey, listen up. Here comes an afterthought.” Like this:

I’m going to bed now; it’s been a rough day.

Imagine the first independent clause called out boldly to a partner across the room.

I’m going to bed now.

Then there’s a pause, perhaps with a yawn, and the speaker adds introspectively the justification for bedtime.

it’s been a rough day.

Two separate thoughts, each with a separate noun and verb, but tied together neatly

with our little squiggly friend, the semi-colon.

After I send this humble essay to my nerdy pal back in the States, I’m going to take a very long walk along the Mediterranean beach at Barcelona, where I refuse to think a single thought about punctuation and grammar. Period.





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