colon blowAh, the semicolon. I am not sure there is anything more mishandled by teachers than the teaching of the semicolon. I base this on two opinions. First, it is easy to teach the basic rule of semicolons. Second, students will never use them, and probably shouldn’t. The second opinion is a result of the first.

The problem is not a how problem; it’s a why problem. Here’s a typical sentence a student would write that follows rule number one of semicolons, followed by the semicolon formula:

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This is correct. Yay for the student. However, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Writers don’t focus on writing correct sentences (in fact, sometimes, we write incorrect ones). Writers focus on writing good sentences. Is the example above a good sentence? Eh.

That, of course, depends. This sentence represents a specific situation, with a setting and characters, each of which has some sort of motivation. Different sentence constructions with different ways of combining these two ideas will take on different meanings. I’ve borrowed from Jeff Anderson and Constance Weaver to come up with the following analysis to help people understand the simple semicolon.

First, look at these examples, combining the two sentences a different way. How are these different from the first version, and how then are they similar and different?

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Obviously both follow the same pattern. In A, most likely it is two facts with little connecting the two, although it is possible we are celebrating the fact that Tom and Joe both brought something or that they together brought two things (as in, they’re roommates and were only expected to bring one thing). But that’s not what happened at all.

So let’s look at another way of expressing the same sentence. How is this different rhetorically from the previous?

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Again, the pattern has changed from the first two, and there is a different structural order. But the significant change is that we now see the relationship between these two facts. What we now see is that Joe’s bringing pop somehow influenced Tom’s bringing pizza.

So then, how is this next example any different?

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Rhetorically, the semicolon creates more of a pause or highlights the connection between the two ideas more forcefully. So in this last example, I would argue that it most clearly represents what I had in mind: Joe and Tom had a rather heated argument about who could take pop and who would have to get the pizza, so when Joe rushed out and got the pop, this caused Tom to get the pizza, reluctantly. That semicolon and conjunctive adverb best underscore Tom’s plight.

I’m still, though, wondering about that first sentence and when it would be a good example, that simple semicolon formula. Well, semicolons can be good when sentences get really long but you don’t want to start a new one. For many students, this is dangerous territory, a large pair of scissors in the hands of a small child. Instead, a semicolon can be used to connect two sentences when the two ideas are so closely related that no “connector” is needed and a new, almost dramatic affect can be achieved. Consider this alternative scenario:

Tom and Joe agreed to arm wrestle. The winner could get the pop while the loser had to foot the bill for the pizza. They squared off, locking hands in preparation for battle. At first Tom had the upper hand, but then Joe found a hidden reserve of strength and battled back. The two went back and forth for some time until it seemed no one would be able to win.

Tom brought pizza; Joe brought pop.

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