#amwriting: Two punctuation wrongs that don’t make a right

semicolon memeToday, I am revisiting independent clauses and how NOT to join them. This has been discussed at length elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll keep today’s discourse short and to the point.

You do not join independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuumthe Dreaded Comma Splice:

Comma Splice: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu and I like it, the dog likes to ride shotgun.

Same thought, written correctly: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu, and I like it. The dog likes to ride shotgun.

Would it be better if we used a semicolon? No. The dog riding shotgun is an independent clause and does not relate at all to the color of the car.

A semicolon in an untrained hand is a needle to the eye of an editor.

Remember: Semicolons join independent clauses, which are clauses that can stand alone, and your best bet is to avoid using them except under extreme duress as they can create some lo-o-o-o-ong, run-on sentences.

But what if you absolutely, positively have to use a semicolon, or your hair will fall out? Trust me, it won’t happen, but there are rules for using this type of punctuation, and the wise author will follow them:

Two clauses that are joined together with a semicolon should be

  1. complete sentences that relate to each other
  2. if they don’t relate to each other, make them separate sentences and reword them so they are not choppy.

Two separate ideas done wrong: We should go to the Dairy Queen; it’s nearly half past five.

The first sentence is one whole idea—they want to go somewhere. The second sentence is a completely different idea—it’s telling you the time.

Two separate ideas done right, assuming the mention of time is important: We should go to the Dairy Queen soon. They close at eight, and it’s nearly half past five.

If time is the issue in both clauses, and you feel like you absolutely MUST use a semicolon or you will explode, say, “The Dairy Queen is about to close; it’s nearly half past five.”

I generally try to find alternatives to semicolons, but I don’t dislike them, as some editors do. I do think they are too easily abused and misused, and should not be used if you are in doubt.

Comma splices—don’t do it. The universe will grind to halt, and everyone will die, and it will be your fault.

Semicolons—use only when two stand-alone sentences or clauses are really short and relate directly to each other.

Comma Splice Meme



Filed under writing

7 responses to “#amwriting: Two punctuation wrongs that don’t make a right

  1. Stephen Swartz

    The comma splice is the bane of English teachers’ existence. Once taught, students like to insert semi-colons in every @#$%^&*() sentence!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David P. Cantrell

    Good reminder. I suspect many semi-colons find their way into manuscripts because MS Word’s rudimentary grammar checker suggested it to replace a comma splice.

    How is the em dash different from the semi-colon?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stephen Swartz

      The semi-colon must be followed by an independent clause, whereas the em dash may be followed with either a dependent or independent clause. Em dashes are more appropriate in dialog; nobody speaks in semi-colons.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Also, em dashes are my particular keyboard tic. They are useful, but NOT in the quantities I tend to use them. Thus, as I am assembling the final manuscript of The Wayward Son, I am doing a global search, looking at each instance, and finding most should be replaced with periods and new sentences begun at that place. Sigh. Writing is a continuing process of honing my skills!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. i love the way you bring your sense of humor to an otherwise dry subject. And, I’m mostly in your camp. Nonfiction is a different “story,” but the semi-colon used in fiction, unless it’s part of a long, voice-centric riff, tends to feel too formal and thus takes the reader out of the fictional dream. Comma splices. Wow. surprising mow many otherwise gifted writers do that.

    Liked by 1 person