Tag Archives: punctuation

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Semicolons get a bad rap for being a punctuation mark that’s outdated, pointless, and confusing to use. But many of those arguments have no merit. In fact, semicolons can serve an important purpose in writing, no matter what it is. Knowing how to place semicolons in the right spot for the right reason, though, is key, and can make this underrated punctuation mark a writing tool worth your time and attention.

Here are five things you need to know about semicolons. Use them mindfully, and see why there’s nothing semi about them.

They’re Effective for Emphasis

If you want to emphasize your point by reinforcing it with a similar thought, the semicolon can help you out. For example, “She never works late; only a crisis would keep her at the office past five.”

They’re Best When Not Noticed

Don’t let the semicolon stand out and distract the reader. Instead, slip it in where it won’t be noticed. Too many semicolons are noticeable. Just one strategically placed within a paragraph on a page is all you need for a subtle break from the usual punctuation.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Period

Semicolons can often be replaced by periods, but sometimes a semicolon is a better choice. If the sentence needs splitting up but doesn’t make two different points, try the semicolon. It might be just the connector you need.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Comma

That’s especially true for complex lists—like those that already include commas. Example: She did three things this morning: read the paper; planned her trip to Washington, DC; and made a yogurt, berry, and granola parfait. Choose semicolons over commas with transitional adverbs, too: She knows how to knit; however, she only learned the skill yesterday.

They’re Nothing to Fear

Don’t be afraid of semicolons. They won’t make you look like an amateur. In fact, semicolons are completely acceptable and even a good thing when used properly. Practice using the semicolon and get comfortable with it. You’ve got nothing to lose, other than your fear.

If you’ve wondered whether you should use a semicolon, wonder no more. It’s a useful punctuation mark that’s full of value and function. Go ahead and get on the semicolon bandwagon; just be wise with it for the most impact.

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grammar

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of writing with—what seems to me—misplaced commas used with conjunctions. Granted, most of these sightings appear on social media, where grammar and punctuation apparently don’t matter much. Still, it made me wonder whether the rules surrounding commas and conjunctions are starting to bend a little, even in professional writing. True to form, I got right on it, researching what other writers and grammar gurus think.

What I discovered wasn’t surprising: everyone has an opinion. What I gleaned, though, is that the rules for using commas with conjunctions aren’t hard and fast today. In fact, there are times when they don’t make good writing sense. Check out which old rules still apply and which appear to have moved on:

Commas/conjunctions with independent clauses:

Example: John decided to travel to Europe in the spring, but he wanted to keep his plans a secret.

  • Old rule: The comma precedes the conjunction when two independent clauses are separated by a conjunction.
  • New rule: Still the same, but some authorities say it’s okay, even recommended, to leave off the commas for very short clauses if no confusion results.

Commas/conjunctions with independent clauses that contain parenthetical or descriptive phrases:

Example: She wouldn’t have an answer until Friday, and, given her knack for procrastinating, she might not get back to you until Monday.

  • Old rule: A comma should separate two independent clauses as well as set off descriptive phrases from the rest of the sentence.
  • New rule: Although the above example is still technically correct, three commas so close together makes the sentence look cluttered. One solution is to remove the comma before the conjunction, along with the second she, so that you no longer have two independent clauses: She wouldn’t have an answer until Friday and, given her knack for procrastinating, might not get back to you until Monday. Another option is to substitute a semicolon for the comma after the first independent clause: She wouldn’t have an answer until Friday; and, given her knack for procrastinating, she might not get back to you until Monday.

Commas/conjunctions without independent clauses:

Example: He didn’t ask any questions or raise any concerns.

  • Old rule: No comma before or after the conjunction.
  • New rule: Still the same. For long sentences where a pause becomes necessary, place a comma before the conjunction.

Commas/conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence:

Example: I didn’t get the job. So what do I do now?

  • Old rule: No comma is necessary.
  • New rule: A comma after the conjunction is useful to show a pause or a lingering of thought, if that’s the writer’s intent.

To sum up, commas usually still have a place beside conjunctions, though not always in the spot you might think. Of course, my theory on commas remains unchanged: don’t use them if you don’t have to. It’ll make your writing cleaner and smoother. Best advice? When using commas, use good judgment.

For more information on commas, check out my blog post For the Love of Commas, Don’t Overuse Them.