I had my first meaningful encounter with the dreaded semicolon as a college freshman. Prior to then, I was in denial about my troubled relationship with that punctuation mark. Perhaps, more likely, I simply had not paid attention during that portion of high school English class.
I was required to take a remedial English class. I wasn’t surprised nor dismayed because I realized my problem and sincerely wanted to write coherent papers and communicate more effectively. It was a constant struggle to learn sentence structure and punctuation. The most common red-ink marks from the instructor pointed out comma splices and run-on sentences. I need to be vigilant about this fault. I still mentally dance around the semicolon.
Meanwhile, the regular colon is easier to grasp. I often need to introduce or direct attention to a list. Also, less frequently, I use a colon to properly join two complete sentences. I was warned to avoid colon overuse. Of course, we’re familiar with the use of the colon after the greeting phrase of a business letter, to separate titles from subtitles, and elements of telling time. There are other uses for the colon, and they’re rather intutitive.
One other college problem mark was the dash. I confess that I overused dashes. I didn’t just use dashes to set off material for emphasis, introduce or conclude sentences, break up dialogue, or mark bonus phrases. I used them willy nilly, at random, whenever I couldn’t figure out whether to use semicolons or commas. Nothing chopped up my writing worse than overuse of dashes.
Commas were not a problem, then and now. In media courses, I was taught to use the Oxford comma when dealing with lists, so I continue with that practice in everyday writing.
The period, or full-stop, is a no-brainer, but can trip me up at times. I used to place an extra period at the end of a sentence ending with an abbreviation. As in: “Be sure to pick up the dry cleaning, prepare lunch, vacuum the rug, etc..” I was called out about that extra period, but I learned proper use after only a few reprimands.
Exclamation points are too easy to use. Bad overuse habits recur if I spend too much time on social media. Sometimes it seems like every other posting from others contains exclamation points. I was taught to use as few as possible. The remedial English teacher said that more than one or two exclamation points in a “medium-length” essay is too many. According to her, excitement and stress should be conveyed with eloquent style, not punctuation.
Likewise, we were taught that brackets are used sparingly. Brackets are used when maintaining the integrity of quotation and sentence structure. For example: “[T]he best part of the event was the end of the boring speech.” Square brackets also show up when quoting a grammatical or spelling error. For example: “I’d rather sleep then [sic] eat supper.” Within a quotation, brackets substitute for parentheses when added to explain the content. Such as: “Robert argued with [his son] Andrew.”
I suppose I’ll have to finally deal with the semicolon, once and for all. I have one rule down pat. Use the semicolon ahead of words like however, therefore, or namely. For example: “Bring any dish to the potluck; however, potato salad, baked beans, and chips are usually plentiful.”
More difficult, to me, is the use of the semicolon to replace a period when narrowing the gap between two closely related sentences. For instance: “E-mail me by tomorrow; you can answer the question then.” Comma splices often show up when I write this type of statement. When in doubt, I use a full-stop instead of a semicolon.
I’m beginning to get better at using semicolons to separate units of series when those units contain commas. Such as in: “Safety awards were given to grain elevators located in Sioux City, Iowa; Topeka, Kansas; and Fargo, North Dakota.” I wonder if this example could be called the “Oxford Semicolon”.
Because today is National Punctuation Day, I plan to focus on relearning semicolon rules. Maybe I’ll also take time to review the other punctuation marks, as well.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes what Abraham Lincoln had to say about the subject. “With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a useful little chap.”
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