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Speaking of commas - how about the semi colon?

by: Marilyn Owen (23 October 2008)

I often think that the way we speak is often so different from the way we write - yet the punctuation for speech remains subject to the same rules as for the written word. For example we tend to speak in short pauses and with closely related ideas, and so itís tempting to put a comma in the middle of a sentence. When I looked this up I found, interestingly, that this use of the comma is called a comma splice.

Example:

  • Thatís a good idea, how did you think of that?
  • My library books are overdue, I must take them back!

You know, I think the comma splice as it is called is tempting to use when there is a clear and close relationship between two ideas and these ideas follow on closely. But it is wrong to use a comma in this situation apparently. The correct punctuation mark is the semi colon, or you can separate the two parts of the sentence by inserting a conjunction, and. You can also use a full stop and write two full sentences. Personally, I love to use the comma in this way, even though it is technically Ďwrongí. However, for formal use the semi colon is your best bet! Here are the same sentences again, but this time with a semi colon separating the clauses or parts of the sentence.

  • Thatís a good idea; how did you think of that?
  • My library books are overdue; I must take them back!

Now it seems a good time to tackle the semicolon! Short and sweet; the comma can be left for next time; it is a very popular punctuation mark! But do consider the semi colon, the poor cousin of the punctuation family.

When to use a semi colon; read on!

You can use a semi colon (;) to separate two parts of a sentence, instead of writing two new short sentences or inserting and in the middle of one.

For example you could say:
Send me an email tomorrow; Iíll reply as soon as I get it.

Or you could say:
Send me an email tomorrow and Iíll reply as soon as I get it.

Or just two short sentences as follows:
Send me an email. Iíll reply as soon as I get it.

Now here is a lesser known and tricky example of when a semi colon is needed ... use before introductory words such as for example, e.g. or that is, i.e. Also for instance and namely.

  • We need some shopping today; e.g., bread, milk and eggs are the essentials.
  • Iíd like to go abroad; for instance, Spain, Portugal, California and Australia would be among my first choices of destination.

A semi colon is useful when you are grouping items in a list within a sentence and you need to separate the groups. Here is an example.

People came to hear the band play from St Albans, Hertfordshire; Camden, North London; and Peckham, South London.

Lastly for today, use the semi colon to join two parts of a sentence with Ďandí when it already has one or more commas in the first part . Sounds complicated? Just look at the example and all will be clear!

When I finish work tonight, I will join you for a beer; and that is a promise!

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