Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bizarre tip on Grammar (or—changing a semicolon to a joining word, period, comma or an em-dash)

Lake Avernus, Italy


I read two separate articles. One by an editor and another by a publisher. They both shouted that the overuse of the semicolon was a BIG NO NO. I did a search for this evil punctuation mark in my first finished manuscript and discovered (to my horror) many of these dreaded pests.

What to do. The grammar checker often suggested the use of a semicolon and I went along with it. Checking with my copy of the Universal Keys For Writers, by Ann Raimes, I found the following:

• A semicolon provides a less distinct separation between two independent clauses and indicates that an additional related thought or item will follow immediately.

• The semicolon provides a tantalizing feeling of expectancy; there is more to come. (Notice the clever use of a semicolon).

I am not going to give a full grammar lesson on the proper use of a semicolon. This information can be Googled. My problem is how to change the semicolons in my manuscript without rewriting the entire paragraph. A definition from the North American Encarta English Dictionary gave me a hint. Simply stated, a semicolon is a punctuation mark (;) used to separate parts of a sentence or list and indicate a pause longer than a comma but shorter than a period. This was the answer; I needed; I could use a comma, or a period.

Let’s try this with the first sentence. The semicolon provides a tantalizing feeling of expectancy; there is more to come. We can change this:

• The semicolon provides a tantalizing feeling of expectancy. There is more to come. Or:

• The semicolon provides a tantalizing feeling of expectancy, there is more to come.

I discovered that the use of a comma and or a period would successfully change some of my sentences and still convey the meaning I wanted to pass on to my readers. However, there were many sentences where I wanted the extra independent clause to stand out.

Here is my bizarre grammar tip. The use of an em-dash makes the second independent clause stand out forcing the reader to pause for a second then move on. Using the same sentence above it now becomes The semicolon provides a tantalizing feeling of expectancy—there is more to come. Will it work on the second sentence that has two semicolons?

• This was the answer—I needed. I could use a comma, or a period. As can be seen, one em-dash replaced the first semicolon. Ending this clause with a period replaced the second.

I think we can all agree that this sentence is a poor example of using semicolons correctly. In this sentence, it would be better to replace the first semicolon with the word “that.” This was the answer that I needed. I could use a comma, or a period.

The bottom line is that we can replace a semicolon (in almost every instance) with a joining word (example: that), comma, period or em-dash. How do you make a proper em-dash? You could hit the dash key twice
 (--) or a better way (for Microsoft Word users)is to hit your control and alternate buttons together followed by the minus sign on your calculator (—).

I hope I have given you something to think about. Take a few of your own sentences with a semicolon, use a joining word, comma, period or em-dash, and let me know what you liked best

Here are two examples from my finished book:

“I am glad you saw me. Your birthday party was awesome and you know me, I forgot to bring your gift; was planning on dropping it by last night.”

“I am glad you saw me. Your birthday party was awesome and you know me, I forgot to bring your gift—was planning on dropping it by last night.”

This is not supposed to happen to me; my life is beginning not ending!

This is not supposed to happen to me—my life is beginning not ending!

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