Sunday, 11 November 2012

In defence of...the semi-colon

It may only have a few more years left.  This seemingly-unpopular punctuation mark is suffering from a terrible fate - death by confusion.

It is easily the most vilified punctuation mark in English classrooms across the English-Speaking world.  However, there appears to be no good reason for this.  Commas are far harder to teach, as their rules and rituals are varied, complex and often mystifying.  Speech marks are easily forgotten and misused by all students, all the time (essays and fiction). Exclamation marks are just evil.

No, it seems that the death of the semi-colon is going to be brought about by nothing more than willful negligence.  And that, folks, is not on for such a pretty and happy little mark.  Now, I doubt the tide can be turned at this late stage, but here are my rules for teaching semi-colons:

  1. Remove the mystique that surrounds them.  Be down to earth and gritty when discussing them.  Be off-the-cuff when recommending their use, like you're asking the student to try breathing for a change
  2. Use them in your learning objectives and modelled work, but don't make a hoo-hah about them.  That'll initially confuse, but ultimately delight the students.
  3. Illustrate the power of semi-colons by comparing them to train couplings - they have the power to create infinitely long sentences, after all.  Then show them an extract from Mrs. Dalloway to really blow their minds.
  4. Play the punctuation point game, where students peer assess with a competitive edge.  A correct full stop is a point, and a correct comma 2 points; a correct semi-colon bags you 5 points.  I've tried this many times and it works really well, as they argue about the niceties of punctuation.

  5. Above all, remember the simple rule for semi colons. They are an optional upgrade for a full stop, if you wish to indicate a subtle link between the two sentences.
And, of course, it's lower-case after one.  And yes, you can use them in lists where list-items contain commas themselves.

I hope that helps.  They deserve saving.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog post, sir. The semi-colon is perhaps the most expressive of all punctuation marks, capable as it is of conveying suspense, continuation, connections, pauses for thought, and many other moods and emotions besides. It cannot be allowed to die out!