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I often see people making sentences quite longer than I'm comfortable with, such as like this:

The dog ran, the dog fell, the dog dwelled; the dog didn't wish to be a part of such a place in his life; however, the dog did do his deed and carried on.

That is how I witness people with semicolons, and they're always making sentences longer and longer this way. It's wrong, isn't it? A semicolon used is to include a separate clause that does not stand well in a sentence of its own, yes?

If so, that example sentence above should be phrased as:

The dog ran, the dog fell, the dog dwelled. The dog didn't wish to be a part of such a place in his life; however, the dog did do his deed and carried on.

Alternatively, you could make it a bit different by carrying it on with a comma instead:

The dog ran, the dog fell, the dog dwelled. The dog didn't wish to be a part of such a place in his life, however, the dog did do his deed and carried on.

Basically, I want to know what the deal is here: Are those sentences with tons of semicolons that continue endlessly correct, am I wrong, or how do you accurately determine if the sentence should be snipped of semicolons?

  • Is this some sort of Seinfeld joke? – RyeɃreḁd May 9 '14 at 21:54
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As Lewis Thomas puts it, in his delightful essay "Notes on Punctuation"
(from The Medusa and the Snail):

"I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer."
...
"The things I like best in T.S. Eliot's poetry, especially in the Four Quartets, are the semicolons. You cannot hear them, but they are there, laying out the connections between the images and the ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath."

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  • Footnote: "The Greek usage" that Thomas talks about refers to the fact (mentioned earlier in the essay) that Greek uses the semicolon as a question mark. – John Lawler Jun 22 '14 at 15:07
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The first sentence should have semi-colons between each independent clause. The second sentence should contain a semi-colon after 'life'. The use of 'however' is aptly described here, and is used correctly in your example because it provides a contrast to the first half of the sentence.

The dog ran; the dog fell; the dog dwelled. The dog didn't wish to be a part of such a place in his life; however, the dog did do his deed and carried on.

Poor, noble dog.

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  • So 'I came, I saw, I conquered' should have semi-colons? – Edwin Ashworth May 9 '14 at 22:36
  • Semi-colons are not appropriate for your example, although technically correct. The semi-colon first appeared in print in the late 1400's; Julius Caesar penned "Veni, Vidi, Vici" around 46BCE. – IconDaemon May 10 '14 at 0:01
  • @Edwin Ashworth It is a beautifully written asyndetic sentence; a semi-colon would not mar it – Third News May 10 '14 at 5:09
  • @IconDaemon I hadn't realised he'd got any commas with him at the time, either. Single dots (distinctiones) perhaps. 'The modern comma was first used by Aldus Manutius.' [Wikipedia] And are you suggesting that English shouldn't develop? – Edwin Ashworth May 10 '14 at 11:48
  • From Wiki: Strunk & White [this makes the second time I've found something in there I agree with!] notes that splices are sometimes acceptable when the clauses are short and alike in form, such as: The gate swung apart, the bridge fell, the portcullis was drawn up. The famous sentence I came, I saw, I conquered falls into the same category. Fowler (third edition, 1996) notes a number of examples by reputable authors: ... this habit of writing comma-joined sentences is not uncommon in both older and present-day fiction. Modern examples [appear in the works of] E. Jolley [and] I. Murdoch. – Edwin Ashworth May 10 '14 at 11:57
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The usage of semi-colons - like the usage of a lot of punctuation - has a few rules, and a lot of preference around it.

Wikipedia:

The modern uses of the semicolon relate either to the listing of items or to the linking of related clauses.

Although Wikipedia isn't always a great source, it's important to decide: is this being used as a comma for items with commas, or is this being used to separate clauses ?

In the first set of items, you have commas separating independent clauses - I'd probably say that it's the former, rather than the latter.

In short: semi-colons are used when you have items in a list with internal punctuation, or between clauses where the writer believes them to be more closely related than denoted by a period, but not as closely related as denoted by a comma.

However, there's a lot of variance in its usage. For listing items, I'd say that a reasonable litmus test is whether any of the items contain punctuation within the items, and if not, the semi-colon probably isn't necessary. For instance:

The following things go together: milk, cereal; bread, butter; cheese, toast; coffee, cream. OK

The following things are in my pantry: milk; cereal; bread; butter; cheese; toast; coffee; cream. Not OK

For coordinating clauses, it's a bit more difficult, since using a semi-colon, in and of itself, denotes a stronger relation than commas. There's probably no situation (and certainly none that I can think of) where a semi-colon couldn't be replaced by a period, which isn't to say that you should never use them. As long as the two clauses are semantically linked in some way, I wouldn't take issue with it.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. OK

I went home this afternoon; I like apples. Not OK?

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