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Is the semicolon in the following sentence misused?

How can I miss you; we've never met?

I feel that the sentence, to be grammatically correct, must be split into its individual parts.

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  • 21
    Yep, that threw an error: syntax error near unexpected token ';'
    – jbelacqua
    Sep 16, 2011 at 18:51
  • @jgbelacqua, You're my damn hero. +1
    – ahodder
    Sep 16, 2011 at 19:38
  • 1
    @AedonEtLIRA: I think you meant "You're my damn hero; +1" =P
    – user541686
    Jan 6, 2013 at 5:07
  • Ok so the question mark goes before the semicolon, ok got it. And the "correct" punctuation above doesn't really illustrate the point of correct grammar as to change the meaning of the sentences, which wasn't the point. For selling its better to sound clunky anyway, its those imperfections that get noticed
    – user57727
    Nov 19, 2013 at 16:36

6 Answers 6

40

Yes, that's wrong. A semicolon is supposed to connect two related clauses. What you have there is a question and a statement, with a semicolon for the question and the question mark on the statement.

Something like "I can't miss you; we've never met." would be proper use of the semicolon.

Or, "How can I miss you? We've never met." would be proper punctuation for the given sentence.

Or, "How can I miss you if we've never met?" would be a proper replacement for the errant semicolon.

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  • Thank you for your clarification. @Evik James +1 as well, unfortunately I only get to accept once.
    – ahodder
    Sep 15, 2011 at 20:16
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    In older print, you might also see How can I miss you?: we've never met. Sep 16, 2011 at 6:39
  • @Cerberus: really? That's an interesting combination, could you point me to some places where this is used? Sep 16, 2011 at 7:04
  • @JoachimSauer: I remember seeing it, but I don't remember exactly where. It is very hard to Google for; I'll let you know when next I see it. Sep 16, 2011 at 15:02
  • @Cerberus , I sought out some instances of ?: (aka Elvis text emoticon by the hair lick) using the Symbol Hound search engine advanced mode for phrase "you?:" symbolhound.com/?q=&l=&e=you%3F%3A&n=&u= It doesn't appear to be only older print.
    – John K
    Jan 28, 2012 at 16:12
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I do not believe this is acceptable. The sentence should be rewritten several ways, but not the way you have cited.

1) How could I miss you? We have never met. // Fine.

2) How could I miss you, as we have never met? // Okay.

3) As we have never met, how could I miss you? // Perfect.

No matter what, "how can I miss you" is its own interrogative statement. It requires the use of the question mark. Breaking the sentence up with the semicolon puts the question mark near the end, where the question isn't.

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  • wow, right down to the second. :-)
    – Hellion
    Sep 15, 2011 at 19:42
  • What's that? We submitted at the same time with very similar answers?
    – Evik James
    Sep 15, 2011 at 19:50
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    What's the reasoning behind #3 being "perfect"?
    – jprete
    Sep 16, 2011 at 3:26
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    As I speak like this regularly, you probably wouldn't like the way I speak. :>
    – Evik James
    Sep 16, 2011 at 15:02
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    You are entitled to your opinions about the relative merits of these sentences, but they are entirely subjective. Speaking as an actor, if I was given 3) in a script I would find it clunky. The original sentence (preferably with a colon) would be much more natural.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 16, 2011 at 15:25
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Hellion's and Evik's answers are already very good, but should you have any more doubts on this topic in the future, you might want to refer to The Oatmeal's Guide on “How to use a semicolon - The most feared punctuation on earth”.

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  • A wonderful learning tool. This is certainly better than any English teacher I ever had.
    – Evik James
    Sep 16, 2011 at 15:03
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Evik, changing the order changes the meaning, so that's a judgement call as to whether it's better. It depends on the text as a whole. What I would do, though, if I were to change the order, is leave the semi-colon.

"We've never met; how could I miss you?"

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3

This is a classic context for the colon: the second half amplifies or explains the first.

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Evik's "As we have never met, how could I miss you?" and Hellion's "How can I miss you if we've never met?" are certainly more correct, but they convey a very different feeling. The problem with "How can I miss you; we've never met?" is more with the question mark, I think.

None of the variants I have seen or tried myself did convey the same meaning and feeling, though, so if I was the authors, if the context allow, I would probably keep it unchanged, even if not perfectly grammatical.

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  • By the way, I am no English native speaker, so I may be completely wrong, feel free to tell me.
    – gb01
    Sep 21, 2011 at 2:55

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