comma, semicolon, colon: joining sentences/clauses

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Cense

Senior Member
English - Antipodean
In longer sentences I have been using semicolons to denote sentence substructures where the use of a single comma is insufficient.

For example a regular sentence using commas might be: There were a number of men present including x,y,z.
Then I would use a semi colon if there is more complexity in the sentence: There were a number of men present including x,y,z; they all delivered impressive speeches on the topic.

Are semi-colons always used to separate larger subsections of the sentence relative to commas, e.g. would it be incorrect to write: There were a number of men present including x;y;z, they all delivered impressive speeches on the topic?

What happens if I need to use more than 2 separators in a sentence? E.g. At least two different situations have arisen; the first requires the implementation of the two fold method, the four fold method, and the eight fold method; the second only requires implementation of the two fold method [comma, semicolon, other] and this means the necessary precautions must be taken to cover both circumstances.
 
  • Egmont

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Your understanding of the relationship between commas and semicolons is correct. So is your example of "There were a number of ..."

    However, I am reminded of a magazine editor who, when he was in that position, published a number of pieces I wrote. He once told me that my manuscripts looked as though someone had sprinkled pepper all over them: too many semicolons. He asked me to use far fewer, pointing out that they would never see the light of day anyhow so I might as well get rid of them myself. If I didn't, I'd force him to do extra work and, more importantly to me, give him an opportunity to mess up my meaning.

    Having learned that lesson, I submit that your first example, while correct, should be two sentences. Your second, longer, example should be three sentences. And anything that seems to need more than two levels of structure should absolutely, positively be more than one sentence.
     

    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    A good basic rule is: If the two parts could stand alone as sentences, use a semicolon; if not, use a comma. If both parts are long, then make them separate sentences. I agree with Egmont that you shouldn't try to cram three independent parts, whatever their length, into one sentence.

    The guiding principle is always clarity and concern for the reader's understanding. You don't want to confuse your reader.
     

    xjm

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    I agree with Egmont and Parla, but understand also that this is a more recent attitude about punctuation in prose. If you read older English prose, you will find page-long beasts of sentences, jointed like centipedes with all the semicolons.

    Edit: I personally abuse the heck out of semicolons because I like them; I tend toward verbosity in general. Whenever I write a paper, though, I have to go back and make myself split my sentences into smaller ones. :)
     

    Cense

    Senior Member
    English - Antipodean
    Thanks for the replies so far as they are getting me to consider the issue more deeply. I just wanted to point out that the examples provided were fictional and designed to work out what to do if a sentence were to contain more than 2 main substructures.

    I quite like sentences that encapsulate closely related thoughts and find the full stop can sometimes interrupt a continuum of thought and so I see multiple substructures as a positive is some circumstances. The one caveat is that cramming too many completely unrelated clauses can create a lack of mental direction and therefore a degree of confusion for the reader. Thus any beneficial use of multiple substructures can probably only be earned through experience, and I was hoping to get some guidelines on this, in particular when there is need for more than 2 main substructures in a sentence.

    Also xjm, when you used the semicolon in the sentence: "I personally abuse the heck out of semicolons because I like them; I tend toward verbosity in general.", you seem to be using it more as a colon rather than a comma. Should I also be looking at semi colons as more than just sentence substructure denotations?
     
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    xjm

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    Thanks for the replies so far as they are getting me to consider the issue more deeply. I just wanted to point out that the examples provided were fictional and designed to work out what to do if a sentence were to contain more than 2 main substructures.

    I quite like sentences that encapsulate closely related thoughts and find the full stop can sometimes interrupt a continuum of thought and so I see multiple substructures as a positive is some circumstances. The one caveat is that cramming too many completely unrelated clauses can create a lack of mental direction and therefore a degree of confusion for the reader. Thus any beneficial use of multiple substructures can probably only be earned through experience, and I was hoping to get some guidelines on this, in particular when there is need for more than 2 main substructures in a sentence.

    Also xjm, when you used the semicolon in the sentence: "I personally abuse the heck out of semicolons because I like them; I tend toward verbosity in general.", you seem to be using it more as a colon rather than a comma. Should I also be looking at semi colons as more than just sentence substructure denotations?
    No, I am not using it as a colon; it does not denote a subordinating relationship. (...Hah. I did it again there.) You'll often hear people try to explain semicolons as "strong commas" or "weak periods." The semicolon can be used to join two complete separate sentences that are related in some way, which I suspect is actually their most common use.

    In a way, punctuation is just a way of denoting intonational patterns that would be used in speech. Compare:
    I am using a colon: I wish to denote a subordinating relationship.
    I am using a semicolon; I do not wish to denote a subordinating relationship.

    The main difference between these two sentences is how they "sound": in the first, my pitch goes first up and then down on the word colon; in the second, my intonation goes up, then down a little, and then up a little.

    I see I also used both a colon and a semicolon in the last paragraph. That example should be instructive. The first colon indicates that what follows is clarification or elaboration on the first point. The semicolon is there instead of a period because there is a strong parallel relationship between the two parts, and both parts are furthermore explanation of the main clause before the colon. In speech, my intonation would underscore the relationship, but in writing, the semicolon serves the same purpose.

    Edit: I could also render my last sentence above as:
    In speech, my intonation would underscore the relationship; in writing, the semicolon serves the same purpose.

    The difference is that I am replacing the conjunction "but" with an intonational change that serves the same function in connecting the two clauses (with a slightly different tone). Again, there are two parallel clauses that are related to each other, but without a subordinating relationship.

    Edit 2: There's probably also lots of info in the threads at:
    http://www.wordreference.com/definition/semicolon
     
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    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    There are a couple of separate issues. Let's assume you do want to write the complex sentence and not chop it up with full stops.

    Point 1. Semicolons can be used where commas usually are, if the parts they separate are themselves complex enough to need internal commas. The men present include X, who was the first to climb Mt Everest in the nude; Y, the possessor of the largest bagpipe collection in Finland; and a welcome visitor to our shores, the renowned Z, who once won the Turner Prize for filling the Albert Hall with marmalade.

    Point 2, you can't reverse the priority of comma and semicolon. If you start with a sentence like 'There were many men present, and they included X, Y, and Z', then the main division is the punctuation mark after 'present', dividing the first half from the second half. This can't remain a comma if you put semicolons into the second half: :cross:'There were many men present, and they included X, who climbed Mt Everest nude; Y . . .'

    Point 3. Point 1 was about lists divided by semicolons. It is possible to use multiple semicolons as clause dividers provided all the clauses are at an equal level, as in Bacon's maxim: 'Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.' Here the semicolon provides greater weight to the divisions, which could also be marked by commas.
     
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