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Grammar Grief: Semicolon Cancer Cure

By popular demand, I bring you the answers to the devil quiz that has irritated so many of you. Mind you, I'd really appreciate it if you'd hold off on reading this until after you've taken the quiz, just so the data will be more accurate.

First off, I want to thank every one of you who took this godforsaken quiz. I had been staring at the rules of usage for over an hour, and was convinced that my adaptations of examples were too easy. After revisiting, I realized that the quiz was really an evil bastard, and probably pretty hard for anyone without an open copy of Strunk and White.

When making this quiz, I didn't trust myself to write questions by myself without making errors; therefore, all of the questions came out of one of three books. I found an example, modified the text, added some errors, and called it a quiz. I'll list the corresponding book and the page number with each question, while explaining the rule being applied. Here we go! The answers are as follows:


Question 1: Man proposes: God Disposes

I pulled this directly out of Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. The example can be found at the bottom of page 119 when she explains that colons are commonly used between oppositional or antithetical statements. I put this question mainly because I wanted to see if people would choose the grammatically correct colon, the more conversational comma (as endorsed by Strunk and White pg. 7), or guess that using a semicolon would be correct simply because this is a quiz about semicolons.


Question 2: I remember when he couldn't write his own name on a gate; now he's the president.

This was also taken from Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and then slightly modified. The original example can be found on page 122. I realize that for this question, the second answer could feasibly be correct as well. It really boils down to a stylized choice, and many editors and writers have waged brutal battles over similar sentences. The use of a comma would provide a conversational breath (and perhaps a dramatic pause when recited by the likes of faithlynn). In the end, because Lynne decided not to use it in her example - and also because I personally feel the comma is not necessary - I decided to opt for a "less is more" approach. Plus, commas get out of hand rather easily these days.

The rule here is simply joining two interdependent independent clauses, or related full sentences. Such sentences could be broken up with a period, but if the writer decides that the sentences have a close relationship with one another then he/she may wish to illustrate the connection with a semicolon. [I find it quite gratifying whenever I use a semicolon, and I actually get excited when the I get the chance. I love it when authors use them too. It's graceful and reassuring. You know you're in good hands when a writer can keep their thoughts organized and eloquent. Yes, I am a nerd, and thank you.] It's a conscious choice made when the standard comma and coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) just won't do.


Question 3: Tom locked himself in the shed: England lost to Argentina.

Also taken directly from Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which is - by the by - a thoroughly magnificent book. The example can be found on pages 129-130. As seen in the previous questions, semicolons link closely related sentences; however, the semicolon - while implying that these two events happened at the same time, it does not necessarily mean he locked himself up because of the loss to Argentina.

The semicolon is less formal and rigid than the colon. The colon implies that these two events happened simultaneously, and also implies that the former occurred because of the latter. This is the colon that reminds us that there is more to the initial sentence than there initially seemed. Granted, I think this sentence structure is a little silly, especially in lieu of this example. I think any normal person discussing this subject matter would throw a "because" in there and have done with it, but it is a lesser known rule of grammar. I really just wanted to clarify that the semicolon implies relation, not effect.


Question 4: Mary Shelley's works are engaging; they are full of interesting ideas.

I ganked this one straight out of every writer's bible, Strunk and White's Elements of Style. It can be found on page six, and I wanted to iterate that a semicolon, not a comma, should be used to join two related independent clauses. Even when it sounds conversational, without a conjunction a comma is a no-no. I also thought this example would illustrate the relation better than the first example, and provide a good example of semicolon readability. Plus, I just got done working on Frankenstien in Love and I've still got Mary Shelley on the brain, so deal.


Question 5: I never met the woman; however, I think she might be a whore.

This one sprouted a little bit of debate in the comments on the poll itself. I ganked this example from Substance and Style: Instruction and Practice in Copyediting by Mary Stoughton. On page 142, the original example can be found using the word "however" with a similar sentence structure. I was always taught that conjunctive adverbs such as "however" should never be used to start a sentence (which seems contradictory, since the second independent clause after the semicolon should be fully independent...[even so, sentences starting with "and" or "but" still make my blood boil.]) and that they were only to be used after semicolons. Diana Hacker, author of several writers references including my handy dandy Pocket Style Manual, agrees.

The rule: Whenever a sentence is affixed with either a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase, a semicolon must be employed. Using a comma in place of a semicolon will result in a the dreaded "comma splice." (pg. 56-57 in the aforementioned Pocket Manual)

I can already hear the questions coming. That's all fine and dandy, but what in the hell is a conjunctive adverb? How do I know what's a transitional phrase? Fear not, I'll give you a list of examples.

Lists of Conjunctive Adverbs: Click here and/or here.
[Back in grade school we're taught that most adverbs end in "ly." I will warn you, though. If I ever catch anyone other than Stephen Colbert using the word "thusly" seriously, I will probably punch 'em in the throat. Moving on...]

List of Transitional Phrases: after all, as a matter of fact, as a result, at any rate, at the same time, even so, for example, for instance, in addition, in conclusion, in fact, in other words, in the first place, on the contrary, on the other hand.

I couldn't find a good link, but there you have it. Transition away.


Question 6: The first topic was "How to Swing Dance"; the second was "How to Not Fall on Your Face."

Hmmm. Tricky. Well this one is also a variant of an example found in Substance and Style. On page 143 the book states plainly that while periods and commas almost always go inside quotation marks, colons and semicolons do not.

Still, there are some style issues with this as well. Not with the semi-colon aspect, but rather with the periods/full stops, question marks, and other punctuation marks that aren't actually a part of the quote. This came up in the comments of the poll as well, and I'd like to give a cheerful thumbs up to both guinevere33 and elbales.

Take the following sentence for example: She decided to avoid these so-called "friends". Logically, such a distinction is defensible; grammatically, it isn't. At least as far as American English is concerned, commas and periods go inside closing quotation marks, full stop. Colons and semicolons simply do not.

Question marks and exclamation marks get more complicated. For some reason, it is perfectly permissible to have sentences like these:
1. Did you say, "Let's blow this popsicle stand"?
2. I can't believe you would say "shitkicker"!


Question 7: Fares were offered to Corfu, the Greek island; Morocco; Elba, in the Mediterranean; and Paris. Margaret thought about it. She had been to Elba once and had found it dull; to Morocco, and found it too colorful.

This one was awful, and I think it probably gave a great many people a migraine. I even stuck in a sneaky option that was mostly right except for one missing semicolon. With as many as there are in this sentence, it would be easy to let one slip by.

I pulled this one straight out of Eats, Shoots & Leaves as a sort of coup de gras. I knew it was evil, but I couldn't find another good example of a semicolon list besides this mess on page 126. Still, when you compare it to the frantic tangle of commas, the appeal is clear.

Semicolons are often used in complicated lists in which the separate elements are either too long or complex for a tiny comma to handle, or in which the different components of lists have details attached (i.e. Corfu, the Greek island), and especially after lists started by colons (see page 120 for further details.). Though these sentences seem frightening, without the our dear semicolon the sentences would be appalling and indecipherable. I did not include a question comparing lists where semicolons and commas came after a colon, because commas will generally get the job done, and I think it's more of a personal style choice anyway.


I want to thank you all again for taking the poll. I hope you enjoyed it. If not, at least I gave you the chance to curse at me, right? Hey, maybe you learned something! Maybe you reaffirmed how amazingly awesome your grasp on the English language is! Either way, this is really helping my article and I'm eternally grateful to everyone who took the poll, and to all those who pimped it. ♥ to you all.


*If you really enjoyed this, and would like to continue having lovely grammar discussions, quizzes, etc., I am the moderator of grammar_pandas, and you all are exceedingly welcome.



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