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I know the basics of a semicolon—at least I think I do. Aside from delimiting verbose lists, it separates independent clauses of a sentence. So, if you have two independent clauses in a sentence, you can either separate them with a semicolon, or a comma along with a conjunction—like "but".

However, I've noticed a few authors actually using a semicolon with a conjunction, like:

<independent clause 1>; but <independent clause 2>

Can anyone shed some light on when this is preferable to just a comma? Is this simply a matter of personal preference?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

To me, it seems to be purely personal preference. The semicolon between clauses suggests a connection between the sentences that is stronger than if there were a period between the two.

As (to me) it is generally acceptable to start sentences with the short conjunctions and and but, I believe the general rule can extend to independent clauses joined by a semicolon.

Possibly:

He is the most disagreeable person I've ever had the misfortune to meet, and I dislike his style; but I must admit that he gets the job done.

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I can't imagine a more perfect example. Thank you! –  Adam Rackis Apr 12 '11 at 19:09
    
Excellent answer. The length of the sentence has something to do with it as well. –  Cerberus Apr 12 '11 at 22:45

You can use a conjunction whenever you feel like doing so but it is more common when the semi-colon isn't able to distinguish between potential options:

I like vanilla and chocolate; strawberry is okay.

I like vanilla and chocolate; and strawberry is okay.

I like vanilla and chocolate; but strawberry is okay.

Of these, I prefer the first and third. The inclusion of the semi-colon splits the sentence appropriately and the conjunction helps clarify the tonal shift of the last segment.

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Since some people frown on beginning sentences with conjunctions, it's one of those rules you have to break somewhat carefully. Let's take MrHen's excellent example above:

I like vanilla and chocolate; but strawberry is okay.

In this case, a comma would probably get the job done. The semicolon offers more of a break, and here works to distance strawberry a bit more - the author is tossing a backhanded sop to strawberry. The two clauses are so tightly linked in meaning that even though we're starting the second one with a conjunction, the reader doesn't notice.

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Personally, I would actually have used a dash or reworded the sentence. But a semicolon is always great for a backhanded sop. –  MrHen Apr 13 '11 at 18:18

No, actually, the rules are quite more codified than personal style preference. There are two place in which one uses a semicolon. The first place is linking two independent clauses without the use of a coordinating conjunction (such as "so" or "but"). For example:

Andrew is witty, intelligent, and charming; Adam, on the other hand, is a libertarian dumbass.

Using a semicolon and a conjunction is wrong:

"I like vanilla and chocolate; but strawberry is okay."

This breaks the rules because it uses a semicolon where it ought to use a comma. This rule is not as devotedly observed as I, a veteran grammar teacher, would like.

The other time where semicolons are used correctly is when making a list in which the items of that list contain commas. For example:

"The panel consists of John, a senator from Ohio; Paul, a local government official; and Marianne, the leading research expert on the topic."

These are actual rules and are not dictated by how you feel towards your readers.

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Hi Andrew, welcome to stackexchange! Can you share your source for this? Strunk and White state simply that Independent Clauses should be joined using a semicolon, or with a comma and a conjunction. Doesn't "but strawberry is okay" qualify as an independent clause? If so, wouldn't using it with a semicolon be ok? –  Adam Rackis Apr 12 '11 at 20:17
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I second the request for a source for what these "actual, codified rules" are :) –  psmears Apr 12 '11 at 21:31
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As a linguist an a descriptivist, I assert that the rules of the English language is not governed by a single entity or language academy, but on norms that are decided by the community of speakers and writers. –  Blue Magister Apr 13 '11 at 0:02
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My hunches suggest that your codified rules also claim starting a sentence with a conjunction is Bad and Evil but authors and readers completely ignore the rule because it serves a very specific purpose that would be unnecessarily difficult to accomplish otherwise. The semicolon+conjunction is not a typical construction that should be used sparingly and when other options have been rejected or dismissed for miscellaneous reasons. No one is going to trip on parsing it; it conveys a specific meaning; why denounce it other than to follow someone else's rules about your own language? –  MrHen Apr 13 '11 at 18:15

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