by Michelle Garrett
With modernity has come a certain licentiousness when it comes to punctuation. Though there is a certain freedom in dropping commas at one’s own leisure, I withhold that with this breakdown of grammar comes a breakdown of communication. Every poorly-punctuated paragraph leads us further away from F Scott Fitzgerald’s flawless prose and closer to the incomprehensible mutterings of rap lyrics. We’re swapping a brilliant vision of the world for a lacklustre attempt at poetry authored by somebody with an inexplicable need to reduce their name to initials (P Diddy, Jay Z…). Friends: this is dire.
Recovering what has been lost begins with an explanation of how to properly use a semi-colon. The humble semi-colon is perhaps the most elegant of all keyboard characters, and it breaks my heart to see it neglected in favour of the brash and unforgiving colon. Semi-colons scarcely appear, and should they do so, it is likely that they have been misused. So here’s the deal:
Semi-colons are used to connect two grammatically complete sentences.
Colons are used for everything else.
So when you have the urge to use a semi-colon, put it in and then look at your sentence. Can you read both sides of the semi-colon individually and have them stand alone as a sentence? Consider this example:
“I love to take a gin and tonic in the evenings; only Blue Sapphire will do!”
This is correct. Read “only Blue Sapphire will do!” alone, and it is in fact a legitimate sentence with a subject, object and verb – and a spectacular sentence it is! But now consider:
“I love to take a gin and tonic in the evenings; Blue Sapphire, with Schweppes.”
This is wrong, my friends. It is so very wrong that I hasten to have a gin and tonic myself to ease the pain of seeing it on the page before me. “Blue Sapphire, with Schweppes” is hardly a sentence, for there is not a verb in sight. The only way to wrangle this list of beverages into a coherent grammatical construction is to use the semi-colon’s arch-enemy: the colon. Observe:
“I love to take a gin and tonic in the evenings: Blue Sapphire, with Schweppes.”
Oh, how pleasant! The part to the right of a colon need not make sense by itself, in fact it never should. Use your beloved colon when you want to list, or add a comment without the necessity of a verb. Use it, and use it well! But do not forget the long-lost king of punctuation: the semi-colon. Restore it to its rightful place in your writing, and Jay Gatsby will lust after the grandeur of your prose.
Take a look at http://ravishingretro.wordpress.com for further finely punctuated reading.