How to use a semi-colon

Word count: 287 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

In searching for my sentence-of-the week, I consider a variety of attributes. Today’s example might strike you as banal or dull but I like it because it perfectly illustrates perfectly how that difficult piece of punctuation, the semi-colon, should be used.

In fact, the semi-colon isn’t all that challenging if you can remember one key point. When you’re using it, each side of the semi-colon must be a complete sentence. Some writers are unaware of this and have one complete sentence and one partial one. This is incorrect! Each side of the semi-colon must be WHOLE, with a subject (noun or noun phrase) and a verb (action word). Read the two sentences separately to ensure each can stand on its own. By using the semi-colon, you are simply illustrating the close relationship between the two.

Another mistake? Writers sometimes think that sentences with semi-colons must be super long and incredibly complicated. They needn’t! It’s perfectly acceptable to take two SIMPLE sentences and join them together.

There was a perfect example of this in a fairly recent New Yorker story by Kalefa Sanneh published Nov.  21/11. The headline was “Sacred Grounds: A Revolution in coffee,” and the article told the story of fifth generation female coffee farmer Aida Batlle who worked in El Salvador.

Here is the sentence: “Talking about coffee makes her happy; even her complaints are enthusiastic.”

I appreciate the accuracy of the punctuation but I also LOVE the unexpected juxtaposition of the word “complaints” with the word “enthusiastic.” That’s clever writing!

Furthermore, the article made me desperate to try the woman’s coffee. If you live in New York you can get it in at the Ace Hotel on West 29th street in Manhattan. (The distributor is called Stumptown.)

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