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I do a lot of technical writing where I feel that it is appropriate to clarify some technicality. I often produce nested clauses and sub-clauses but I am unsure about the proper use of the semicolon. I have been told that its proper use is to separate clauses and sub-clauses; for example, a sentence and a list of a, b, and c.

To give an example, what is correct use of the following:

"CORFILE contains the product of the analysis, run using the entire event set, run 161457."

or

"CORFILE contains the product of the analysis; run using the entire event set, run 161457."?

To strip away the jargon:

The sentence starts with a clause, followed by a sub-clause, clarification for the sub-clause.

I know I can circumvent the issue by just splitting the sentence. However, for this case, and many others, the extra grammatical logistics needed to do so distracts from the information I am trying to convey.

Are there any general rules for such uses of the semicolon that would make it clear which is correct? Are there any relevant rules in regards to colon and semicolon?

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Semicolon is there really to separate two independent clauses. It eliminates a... pause you could say. You'd use it when you want to strengthen the relationship between the two separate ideas. In your case, I'm not sure what you mean by grammar logistics.

With conjunctions, you'd use a comma instead, not a semicolon.

This should help. http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

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The reason you don't use a semicolon in either place is hinted at by your use of the word "sub-clause": semicolons are used to join independent clauses/sentences, not subordinate clauses. Neither "run using the entire event set" nor "run 161457" are complete sentences, so you need punctuation other than a semicolon.

One possible corrected version would be:

CORFILE contains the product of the analysis, which was run using the entire event set — namely, run 161457.

In a technical-writing context, you could probably abbreviate that to:

CORFILE contains the product of the analysis, run using the entire event set (run 161457).

(Note how in both options, the sub-sub-clause needs some sort of parenthetical punctuation; otherwise, you end up with a run-on sentence.)

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Forgive my technical ignorance, but I take it the sentence means that CORFILE contains the product of the analysis and that the analysis has been run using the entire event set, known as run 161457. If so, then the comma rather than the semi-colon is appropriate. A semi-colon after ‘analysis’ creates too strong an interruption. Still, I think you need to recast the sentence if it is for a lay readership. The difficulty to my eye comes in part from the repetition of ‘run’, used in the first instance, if I have understood correctly, as a past participle, and as a noun in the second.

  • Thanks. It is not meant for the lay person. Run as two different meanings, as in "I ran my analysis" and "Data sets are contained in 'runs'". cheers. – qonf Sep 28 '11 at 11:40

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