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I am struggling with the use of semicolons, commas, and periods in my writing of a specific passage of my personal statement. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

“What is the worst thing you have ever seen?” This question inevitably arises when others learn that I work as a paramedic on a helicopter. I hate this question; I always struggle to answer it. Yet this wasn’t always the case, as I have come gradually to understand after greater than a decade in emergency medical services (EMS).

The other way I have written this is as follows:

“What is the worst thing you have ever seen?” This question inevitably arises when others learn that I work as a paramedic on a helicopter. I hate this question for I always struggle to answer it. This wasn’t always the case, as I have come gradually to understand after greater than a decade in emergency medical services (EMS).

The second entry seems much more cumbersome and doesn't flow as well. It also does not seem to have the same impact as the first.

UPDATE: In response to F.E.---I am trying to discuss that I have gradually come to dislike this question because my interpretation of the question has changed. As a novice provider I answered this question in the same way that rhetorician described-gore. In an attempt to not become too philosophical, my impression of the "worst thing I have ever seen" really doesn't matter. Due to the nature of 911, every event is the worst thing that has ever happened to that patient, at that particular time. I am attempting to say, without sounding cynical or jaded, that my experiences have led me to disliking the question because I have discovered a much deeper meaning to it.

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This is all great information. I should have added the entire paragraph in order to provide context of my discussion rather than just a couple of sentences. I'll do that tomorrow if people are still interested. Thanks again and have a safe night. –  Thomas Dec 28 '13 at 3:33

5 Answers 5

I happen to share your impression. I think this is mainly for two reasons.

  1. By introducing a conjunction, you are losing the rhythm, and weakening the repetition. The result is less forceful.
  2. The particular conjunction for is not equivalent to a semicolon. A semicolon is more of an and. (And a for is better represented by an em-dash.) So rather than boldly stating one thing, and boldly stating another, and letting the reader deal with it, you only state one thing, and then try to explain it away. It almost makes you sound apologetic.

As to a comma, I'd rather lean on the side of a period. Again, for reasons of impact. A comma says, "I am not quite finished with my thought yet, here's something else". A period lets the user think you are done with your statement, but then the next sentence comes along and only reinforces it. Repetition/restatement/reinforcement has a greater impact when the reader does not expect it.

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I agree. The conjunction weakens the flow and impact of the content. I would tend towards a period, too. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 27 '13 at 19:49

You are not alone in your discomfort with punctuation. As for comma versus semi-colon, the simplest "rule" to master is:

The comma is used to connect two independent clauses when a connecting word separates them, as in

  • My cat likes to sleep next to me at night, and I kind of enjoy her company.

  • My favorite meal is Thanksgiving dinner, and I particularly enjoy a dessert of pecan pie!

  • Jim used to be my friend, but he is no longer.

The semi-colon is used to separate independent clauses or lists with numerous items in them, especially when one item in the list has commas in it, as in

  • My cat likes to sleep next to me at night; I kind of enjoy her company.

  • My favorite meal is Thanksgiving dinner; I particularly enjoy a dessert of pecan pie!

  • Jim used to be my friend; he is no longer.

  • The items I bring with me whenever I go on a camping trip are as follows: a tent; a flashlight, with extra batteries; waterproof matches; mosquito repellant; a compass; a map, primarily as a back-up for the compass; a backpack, which includes plenty of lightweight food; and one of those crank-to-recharge radios.

As for your personal statement, I've taken the liberty of coming up with an edited version which eschews semi-colons altogether.

The question "What is the worst thing you have ever seen?" arises inevitably when people learn I work as a medic on a life-flight helicopter. Though I dislike being asked this question and always struggle to answer it, after more than a decade in emergency medical services (EMS) I realize only now the reason why I didn't always feel this way.

The last sentence in the paragraph is my "take" on what you may be saying; namely, your dislike of the question has deepened over the years, and you are about to tell your readers why. Is that a fairly accurate reading?

The last paragraph in my answer, by the way, uses a semi-colon, although the trend seems to be to use a comma instead; I'm more comfortable with the semi-colon, however, given the rules I've laid out at the top of my answer.

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Thank you for your response. Yes, you are accurate in your interpretation of the message I am trying to portray. This is for my personal statement for medical school that is intended to answer the question "why do you want to be a doctor." –  Thomas Dec 27 '13 at 21:47
    
When I first began working in EMS I was drawn to the superficial aspects of the job. Basically, the very things that people want to hear when they ask "what's the worst you've seen?" The gory anecdotes or instant gratification moments are not the valuable experiences, as I have learned. As cliche as it may sound, the truly enjoyable aspects of my job are when I can interact with the patient as a human being, not simply a diagnosis. Obviously I am having a difficult time articulating this concept. –  Thomas Dec 27 '13 at 21:49
    
All personal statement tips seem to say "be specific" yet this didn't come about on any one call or incident, rather collectively over time. I don't want to lie and have some flowery, overly dramatic essay because it's not true. Thank you again for your help. Having graduated college five years ago I no longer have access to a writing center to obtain another perspective. –  Thomas Dec 27 '13 at 21:51
    
@Thomas: You're welcome, I'm sure. Best wishes to you in your worthy pursuits! I commend you for not wanting to slip into the trap of saying, "Boy, I had an arterial bleed a couple months ago, and let me tell you, it was messy," but instead saying something like, "I had a patient, a young boy about ten years old, who was so frightened by his arterial bleed that while I staunched the bleeding I sang the first song that came to my mind: The Star Spangled Banner. It actually calmed him down!" That sort of thing. –  rhetorician Dec 27 '13 at 22:40

I personally like your first example, for pretty much the same reasons other users have said. I would not use an em (or en) dash, because I feel it would be too abrupt in the context. The only amendment I would make, however, is "more" rather than "greater" - "greater" is usually equated with size or number, and "more" with time.

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My personal opinion (admittedly influenced by Kurt Vonnegut's famous quote) is that semicolons are never really necessary. I would personally use the first entry but replace the semicolon with a period or, as @RegDwight suggested, an em-dash.

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I'd like to make some comments, most of which aren't directly related to your, er, question. Your 1st version:

“What is the worst thing you have ever seen?” This question inevitably arises when others learn that I work as a paramedic on a helicopter. I hate this question; I always struggle to answer it. Yet this wasn’t always the case, as I have come gradually to understand after greater than a decade in emergency medical services (EMS).

1.) I'd like to suggest that you consider sliding "gradually" in between "have __ come". Thus:

  • . . . as I have gradually come to understand . . .

2.) There is ambiguity in your current version, in that "the case" can refer to either hating the question or struggling to answer it. I'm not sure which you meant, or perhaps you meant both. If you meant both, then you might want to consider using a conjunction (instead of a semicolon or period, e.g. "and").

3.) A period is often a better emphatic punctation marker than a semicolon for short sentences like yours. For purely example purposes, consider:

  • I hate this question. I always struggle to answer it. Yet this wasn’t always the case, . . .

  • I hate this question. Yet this wasn’t always the case, . . .

  • I hate this question. I always struggle to answer it, yet this wasn’t always the case, . . .

Note that in that last version, the phrase "the case" refers to your struggling to answer the question.

4.) But when I look at that last half of your last sentence, it seems that you are talking about something else entirely as the implied object/complement of "understand":

  • Yet this wasn’t always the case, as I have gradually come to understand after greater than a decade in emergency medical services (EMS).

for that sentence is saying that it took more than a decade for you to understand "something", and that "something" is probably not your hating the question or your struggling to answer it.

But if you did intend for that sentence to mean that your current attitude now is that of hating that question (when before you liked it), then you probably want to break that last clause off. E.g.:

  • I hate this question, and always struggle to answer it. Yet this wasn’t always the case. After greater than a decade in emergency medical services (EMS), I have gradually come to understand that . . .

Sorry for butchering your prose. . . .

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