The skinny on the semicolon

Several weeks ago I saw the following quote posted on Facebook: “When you are born in a world you don’t fit in; it’s because you were born to help create a new one.”

The sentiment expressed is a beautiful one; however, the English teacher in me winced at the misuse of the semicolon, so I thought I would take a moment to explain why you would not use a semicolon in this case and how you would use it correctly.

The first part of the sentence (“When you are born in a world you don’t fit in”) is a dependent clause that cannot stand alone because it is not a complete thought. It connects with, and adds to the meaning of, the main part of the sentence (“it’s because you were born to help create a new one”). This independent clause can stand alone because it contains a subject as well as a verb (“it’s”=it is) and expresses a complete thought. (Note that, although the dependent clause in the sentence we are examining contains a subject [“you”] and a verb [“are”], it is considered a dependent clause because of the introductory dependent marker word [“When”], which renders it an incomplete thought.)

A dependent clause that occurs at the beginning of a sentence and that is longer than just a few words generally requires a comma to separate it from the independent clause. The correct punctuation after the dependent clause in our sentence (“When you are born in a world you don’t fit in”) would therefore be a comma, and the corrected sentence would read, “When you are born in a world you don’t fit in, it’s because you were born to help create a new one.”

It is easy to see why people might mistakenly use semicolons instead of commas, but semicolons are used only in the following two instances:

1) They connect two independent clauses that are of equal importance and that are closely related, as in these two examples:

  • Debbie was running a fever; her mother thought she should stay home from school.
  • The sentiment expressed is a beautiful one; however, the English teacher in me winced at the misuse of the semicolon, so I thought I would take a moment to explain why you would not use a semicolon in this case and how you would use it correctly.

2) They are used between items in a series containing internal punctuation (typically commas) so that the reader will not become confused, as in this example: “Classic science fiction sagas are Star Trek, with Mr. Spock; Battlestar Galactica, with Cylon Raiders; and Star Wars, with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader.” Semicolons are used in this case to help the reader identify the three major groupings: Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Wars. If you were to use commas instead of semicolons, each item would seem of equal importance and the groupings themselves would be lost.

So now you know.

Photo credit

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