After writing about colons last week, I had a few requests for an explanation of semicolons; so here goes.
The semicolon has three uses:
1. It can take the place of a period when it appears between two closely related and complete sentences:
I wish I could go to the club with you; I’m just too tired.
2. When you use these transitional words in a sentence, put a semicolon in front of them and a comma after them:
; for example,
; in fact,
I wish I could go to the club with you; however, I’m too tired. (Do not put commas on both sides of the transitional words; if you do that, you’ll be writing a run-on sentence.)
3. When you have a long, complicated sentence, use semicolons between the items to make the sentence easier to read:
If you’re going camping you’ll need wood for the fire; an axe to chop the wood; matches to light it; food for at least two meals; pots and pans to cook it in; and utensils to cook and eat with.
Do you see how semicolons bring order to that sentence? If you used commas in their place, the eye would be flooded with commas and it would be much harder to keep each item straight.
Brian B. sent me this link, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I did have to email him after I read it to have him explain a few of them. But for those I “got,” the wordplay is very clever.
This is not going to be an anatomy lesson. Rather, it is a simple explanation of a somewhat misunderstood piece of punctuation.
Think of the colon as a blare of a trumpet: TA DAH! It tells the reader something is coming that is closely related to what came before the colon. It almost always follows a complete sentence.
1. It can be used to introduce a list:
Before the meeting I had to organize the following: the meeting location, a list of participants and the agenda.
2. It often introduces a quotation:
The actor’s speech was not encouraging: “I will take any part I am offered, even if it requires me dressing up as a lemur.”
3. It can introduce an example:
Bad luck followed them twice: when they bought their home and when they sold it.
That’s all there is to the colon. Let me know if you have any questions.
“England and America are two countries that are divided by a common language.”
This astute observation has been attributed to Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill, but the consensus credits the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. Is it still as true today as it was when Shaw made the observation? The March 2015 Atlantic ran an article, “Mind the Gap,” in which British and American linguistic differences were explored.
Here are a few; I’ll list the American words and phrases first, then the British.
Trunk (of a vehicle)/Boot
Shag (Southern dance, haircut, type of carpet)/Sexual intercourse
Knock up (make pregnant)/Knock up (call you or knock on your door)
Make a mess of things/Cock up
Baby’s pacifier/Comforter or dummy
Period (punctuation)/Full stop
Thousands more undoubtedly exist, but you get the idea. In addition we have the spelling variances, the most common being the difference between, for instance, center and centre and authorize and authorise, not to mention labor and labour. It’s a wonder we understand each other at all.
By the way, in the same issue of The Atlantic is a wonderful article comparing the British and American versions of “House of Cards,” both available on Netflix. The author and I are in complete agreement about the superiority of the British version (with the brilliantly evil, canny, sly Ian Richardson playing Francis Urquhart (F.U., just as in the American version)), the man who does what he must to become prime minister. I think Kevin Spacey is an excellent actor, but in the two versions of “House of Cards” it’s no contest.