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Is is appropriate to use a semicolon in order to avoid comma ambiguity in sentences like the following?

When they returned from the zoo; Charles, James, and Jane looked for new locations to visit.

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    No. A semicolon is a full stop and can only go after a complete sentence, not a subordinate clause. – John Lawler Jul 31 '15 at 0:52
  • @JohnLawler I doubt this is the case; however, you may wish to consult your manual of style. – deadrat Jul 31 '15 at 0:59
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    Semicolons can helpful in conveying the author's sense when used as hierarchical separating punctuation in a series that already uses commas internally in one or more individual entries in the series, as in "The zoo contained large, brown-eyed, man-eating lions; brisk, impatient tigers; and indolent, sun-loving bears." But John Lawler is certainly correct that a semicolon makes no sense at the end of an introductory adverbial phrase, regardless of attendant ambiguity issues (which, in any case, don't exist in the OP's example). – Sven Yargs Jul 31 '15 at 1:14
  • No -- only a comma is appropriate in the example above. – ewormuth Jul 31 '15 at 1:20
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Punctuation is mostly a matter of style, and while there a few rules that all style guides agree upon (e.g, a period after a declarative sentence), you should consult your own style guide, either the one you've chosen or the one thrust upon you.

I use The Chicago Manual of Style, which recommends semicolons in the following cases

  • To replace a conjunction,[choose one below]:

The day was hot and still[;][ and] I decided to take a nap.

  • before "however" and its synonyms

The day was beautiful; however, I decided to take a nap anyway.

  • To disambiguate comma-separated lists

Queen Victoria was known as the grandmother of Europe because many of her descendants become royal heads of state including Alexandra, Tsarina of Russia; Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany; and Victoria Eugenie, Queen of Spain.

  • When an introductory subordinate clause itself contains comma separated elements. An example is left as an exercise to the interested reader, but note that your introductory subordinate clause starting with "When" doesn't qualify.
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It's not appropriate to use a semicolon after a subordinate clause. I understand that you're thinking you have too many commas, but the correct sentence is

"When they returned from the zoo, Charles, James, and Jane looked for new locations to visit."

From Purdue OWL: 2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

a. Common starter words for introductory clauses that should be followed by a comma include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while.

While I was eating, the cat scratched at the door. Because her alarm clock was broken, she was late for class. If you are ill, you ought to see a doctor. When the snow stops falling, we'll shovel the driveway.

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/02/

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  • Wouldn't the correct answer not have a comma before and? – Mazura Jul 31 '15 at 1:39
  • @Mazura Depends on your preference for the serial comma. It is correct either way. – Jake Regier Jul 31 '15 at 1:47
  • Ah, the Oxford comma dilemma -- – ewormuth Jul 31 '15 at 1:52

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