Last week, the controversy surrounding the allegations of impropriety against John McCain overshadowed some real news in the New York Times: rumors of the semicolon's death are greatly exaggerated. A New York City transit agency employee, it seems, added a semicolon to a public service placard, setting off a punctuation lovefest that includes references to Hemingway, David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, and San Francisco's gay marriage statute, along with analysis from Noam Chomsky, Lynne Truss, and no fewer than two professors. And in what might be the year's wackiest punctuation mishap, the story also included an erroneous omission of a comma. Let's just say that the Times was probably pretty glad when last week came to an end.
While we're on the subject, here's the aforementioned Truss' description of the semicolon's function, from her great book Eats, Shoots & Leaves:
And here's my take on its two primary uses:
The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added…The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with the semicolon there you get a pleasant feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.
1. Separates items in a series with internal punctuation—-commas within commas, that is (“My favorite bands are The Clash, until Mick Jones left; The Rolling Stones, but not for their most recent work; and The Black Crowes, who are like The Stones back when they were good.”)
2. Separates closely-related sentences not joined by a conjunction (“We left on Friday; she stayed through the weekend.” or “In 1975, Ford was our President; in 1976, we elected Carter.”)
Still confused? You could always just go with Dave Barry's definition:
Q. What is the purpose of the semicolon?
A. It can be used to either (1) separate two independent clauses, or (2) indicate an insect attack.
(1) ``Well, I'm a clause that certainly doesn't need any help!''; ``Me either!''
(2) ``Be careful not to bump into that ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;; AIEEEEEEE!''
Hat tip: Daily Writing Tips