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I noticed the following sentence, taken from Mark Twain's "The Awful German Language:"

Fifthly, I would do away with those long compounded words; or require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments.

What is the grammatical function of the semicolon here? I would have expected a comma to be appropriate here, as to me it coordinates a dependent clause, and that would be solely under the jurisdiction of a comma, as I understood.

I thought semicolons were for replacing conjunctions between independent clauses or avoiding confusion with commas when writing a list that requires commas for one of the points within.

Thank you!

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  • Semicolons are full stops. They go after complete sentences just like periods; any text following a semicolon -- which may contain commas, or other punctuation -- is considered extra information. As Lewis Thomas put it, "The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added". Sep 19, 2016 at 14:10

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The use of a semicolon as a 'super-comma' to collate elements in a sub-grouped or other complex list with more clarity is probably accepted by many English writers nowadays. Thus

The groups he chose were Ali, Betty, and Clive; Dwayne, Elly and Frances; Geoff, Habib and Ian; and Jasmine, Kelly and Lily.

For other examples, see this article by Lola Taylor at Scribophile (which also mentions the changes in attitude to the acceptable use of the semicolon).

Taylor (op cit) even mentions the possibility of replacing a comma by a semicolon + conjunction. She gives an example with but; I'd say that sentences starting with and might also still be considered reasonably idiomatic. However, using a semicolon as a super-comma in other situations (here, to signal a more major sentence division than the other two commas do, with the addition of or) is highly unusual to non-standard nowadays. A dash (or full stop, and yes, a sentence beginning with 'Or') would be used today.

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  • Thank you for the link! That's the closest thing to an explanation I've found. It must be under rule #2. Interesting. I suppose I could actually make use of that, since there isn't a good replacement; and even a dash doesn't feel like it brings the same connotation in the flow of the sentence.
    – Blaisem
    Sep 23, 2016 at 20:00

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