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Friday, April 20, 2018

A Semicolon

Among all the little symbols, I find the semicolon the most confusing punctuation mark in English language. It is supposed to be a punctuation mark that separates major sentence elements like clauses. Yet, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities starts like this -

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.....

See, there is no semicolon there. I think, he should have started like this - "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times....". The Oxford dictionary says the main task of semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop.

University of Sussex allots only one major use for the semicolon - it is used to join two complete sentences into a single sentence subject to three preconditions - (1) the two sentences are felt to be too closely related to be separated by a full stop; (2) there is no connecting word which would require a comma such as 'and' or 'but' and (3) the special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

What I understand now is that a writer puts a semicolon when a sentence actually ends, but he decides not to end it, and want to continue with the sentence. If he wanted he could have put a full stop. But, he decided, for whatever may be the reason or compulsion, to continue the sentence.

Life has many commas, they are momentary stops; the journey continues relatively smooth even after a comma. The semicolon is much stronger than a comma. If you encounter a semicolon, your life has actually come to a full stop. Deciding not to put a full stop and put a semicolon instead, depends on the desire to continue life. The semicolon can be justified if the "two sentences are felt to be too closely related" still. Otherwise, use a connecting word like 'and' or put a full stop. 


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