Thanks for your time.
Billie A. Williams
The Capricorn Goat
A lot of writers find the semicolon mysterious. I’d like to see you take charge of your writing and not let the MSWord wizard boss you around about it.
In order to do that, you need to view punctuation as a set of communication tools that you can use to signal your reader how you want them to interpret what you’ve written.
The three basic punctuation tools are a comma, a semicolon, and a period. I often think of them as traffic signs. When I see a comma, I slow down. A semicolon tells me to yield, and a period shouts, “Stop.” It’s that simple.
Think of one of your sentences where the Word wizard tells you to use a semicolon instead of a comma. What do you intend for that sentence to accomplish? If you want it to be two sentences, use a period and tell the reader to stop between them, especially if each sentence is really long.
But suppose the two sentences are closely related in subject matter and you want the reader to view them as a unit. Then you can thank the wizard for his advice and insert the semicolon he suggested. The reader will pause between the two sentences, but she won’t pause as long as if you had used a period.
Sometimes, especially if your two sentences are very short, you can use a comma instead of a semicolon to join them into one, regardless of how loud the wizard screams. But if you want to be very careful, stick with the semicolon between two complete sentences of any length.
You may want to show the exact relationship between the two sentences. If so, you can use a comma and one of these words: but, and, or, when, while, or yet. Each word gives the reader a different signal as to how the sentences are related. Elsa Neal posted a great BRP blog in November [http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2008/11/comma-according-to-trask.html] about the four different categories of commas, so you should read it to learn more about commas and how to use them. She asked that I give you this message: “MSWord is suggesting a semicolon because she is missing a joining word following her commas.” She’s referring to the six joining words listed at the beginning of this paragraph.
Note: Everything I’ve said presupposes that both of your sentences are independent, which is an old-fashioned grammar term. Basically, an independent sentence must contain a subject and a verb and be able to stand alone. It must not begin with a word such as although, after, before, if, since, unless, which, etc. Connectors such as these will make one of the sentences dependent on the other one, and what I’ve said about semicolons won’t apply.
Here are four basic rules and suggestions that follow from my advice.
1. If the two sentences are brief, a comma is acceptable, as in Mary bought bread, she also bought gas. A semicolon is correct in this case also. You can also connect two short sentences by using a comma and but, and, or, when, while, or yet.
2. If the subject matter of the sentences is closely related and the sentences are long, retain the semicolon, as in this example. Mary went to the store to buy a loaf of bread; she also drove to the filling station for gas.
3. If the subject matter of the sentences is not closely related, use a period instead of a semicolon, as in Mary went to the store to buy a loaf of bread. Sam drove to the filling station for gas.
4. Dialogue seems more natural without a semicolon, so when you write dialogue,
use either a comma or a period unless your publisher advises differently.
After you’ve read and thought about my explanations and suggestions, hopefully you’ll feel comfortable enough to tell the MSWord wizard that you appreciate his advice and, although you’ll take it occasionally, most of the time you’d rather do it your way.
I hope this helps.
Shelley has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. She spends most of her time style-editing for Bold Strokes Books.
She also enjoys writing poetry and novels, and posts selections at www.myspace.com/editlit.