A Semicolon Gives Pause—and Order
- On February 9, 2016
A friend presented me with the following two sentences and asked, “Which is correct?”
• “I walked; talking nonstop about anything to distract myself from the pain.”
• “I walked, talking nonstop about anything to distract myself from the pain.”
The second sentence—the version with the comma, not the semicolon—is the correct choice.
The semicolon can function in two ways. First, it connects two closely related independent clauses, which are complete thoughts that could stand on their own as sentences. In this role, the mark is acting like a yellow traffic light. You’re using it when you don’t want to bring your thought to a full stop; you just want to pause before adding a related thought. (As you can see, I did it just there.) Here’s another example: Her speeches on the campaign trail aren’t simple; they are actually incredibly complicated. (That’s from an article about the way Sarah Palin talks—in and of itself, fodder for a year’s worth of bulletins!)
Here’s one more thing about this first usage. When you use words like however, therefore, besides, indeed, and namely to separate your independent clauses, you also use a semicolon. I came across this example in a write-up of survey results: Only 12 percent of business leaders have programs to build a strong corporate culture; however, even fewer rate themselves as excellent at measuring and improving employee engagement and retention.
The semicolon’s second function is to separate items in a list when the items listed contain their own internal commas, as in: The killer was never found, despite an international manhunt; unverified sightings in places as far-flung as Australia, Colombia, India, Paraguay, the United States and New Zealand; and endless conspiracy theories. (That juicy line is from an article about a British aristocrat who killed his children’s nanny and escaped.)