Tag Archive for: Punctuation

How to Use a Semicolon – Just 2 Rules

Dear Copy Bitch: You often say to avoid semicolons. But I want to know how to use them correctly. Any tips?

—Punctuating in Poughkeepsie

Answer: Here’s the good news about semicolons: you have only two rules to remember. The first deals with sentences where you’re probably itching to put a comma, period, or semicolon, and you don’t know which one to choose. The second rule deals with items in a series where you’re already using some other form of punctuation within the series, most likely a comma.

Let me explain. (And I’m not going to explain these rules the way your English teacher would, talking endlessly about independent clauses and transitional expressions.)

The Copy Bitch’s Semicolon Rule #1:

What you need to remember about Rule #1 is this: whatever comes before the semicolon should be able to stand on its own as a sentence. Ditto for what comes after it.

Winning George Clooney isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

I could have just as easily written this: Winning George Clooney isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

Here’s another example of proper semicolon usage:
I’m supposed to go to the movies tomorrow; however, the weather will likely interfere with my plans.

What comes before the semicolon could stand alone as its own sentence. And what comes after the semicolon could stand alone as its own sentence.

Notice the word “however,” which is called a conjunctive adverb. Other conjunctive adverbs include therefore, moreover, hence, and furthermore. These words are used as transitions between two independent clauses, and they should be followed by a comma.

See? This is one of the reasons why I tell people to avoid semicolons. The problem is that so many people don’t know how to use them correctly. The other reason? Go back and re-read the two George Clooney sentences above. Even though they mean the same thing, the punctuation does have a subtle effect on how your mind reads it (you might be unaware of this effect, that’s how subtle it is, but it’s there).

I think you should haul a semicolon out of your bag o’writing tricks when the piece you’re working on calls for this effect. But that means using the semicolon once or twice, not every sentence or every other sentence. Copywriters and business writers should avoid semicolons 99.9 percent of the time (there’s always an exception). And even creative writers should have a darn good reason for littering a page with ’em, at least in this copy bitch’s not-so-humble opinion.

By the way, do NOT think that semicolons and commas are interchangeable. They are not. If you put a comma in place of the semicolon in the examples above, you have what’s called a “comma splice.” And it’s illegal. You could be arrested. Consider yourself warned.

The Copy Bitch’s Semicolon Rule #2

This rule isn’t optional. If you’re writing a sentence that includes a series and within that series you use some sort of punctuation (most likely a comma), you must use a semicolon to separate the items in the series. It’s for clarity’s sake.

Last summer, I visited Boston, Massachusetts; Baltimore, Maryland; and George Clooney’s birthplace.

Want to see the semicolon in brilliant action? Read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Check out the 12th paragraph (but if you’ve never read the whole thing, you should…it’s a powerful piece of writing).

Cost-Per-Click: Will it cost less if you lose the hyphens?

Dear Copy Bitch: We are always having these debates in the office.  I am always on the losing end, but I think I’m right.

1. Is website one word or two?
2. Do you capitalize internet?
3. Do you capitalize jargon phrases like “cost per click”?  Do you put dashes between them?  “cost-per-click”

I know I have others but now of course I can’t think of any of them. I thought maybe other people need/want to know the answers…

—Becca S, New York, New York

Answer: Well, you might not love my answer, which is this: it depends. It depends on the style guide you follow (e.g., AP, MLA, Chicago, etc.). Back in the dark ages (i.e., 2002) when I started my business, I wrote “Web site.” Now I write “website” as one word, but I often see it as two words and don’t think, “Gee, that’s wrong.”

As for “Internet,” I follow the rule that it’s a place and, therefore, believe it needs to be capitalized, just as Paris and George Clooney Paradise do. But I see legit pubs that lowercase it.

As for cost per click, same answer: it depends on the person, the editor, the business owner, the publication. For me, I follow this rule: I use caps only (usually) for the acronyms (CPC). I don’t usually use hyphens if the term is used as a noun: What was the cost per click? or The cost per click was $1.45. However, if a term is used as an adjective, that’s when I’d add hyphens: We need to be mindful of our cost-per-click budget. But again, I see sentences that violate my rule all the time (and I’m sure some smart reader could point out places where I violate my own rule).

The key is consistency. Be consistent with your usage (and when I say be consistent, I mean be consistent for that particular publication or for that particular company. I’m not saying you should simply decide how you want to do it and that’s it). Publications have style guides. Smart companies should have internal style guides that address items like the ones you list above (in addition to other things, such as serial commas). Anyone who creates content for the company (marketers, copywriters, consultants, etc.) should receive copies of the style guide (and adhere to the rules).

So how would you answer your own questions? I’m curious. Let me know in the comments.

Apples, Peaches, and George Clooney Naked

Question: Hey, Copy Bitch: What’s the proper use of commas in a series: A, b, and c. Or A, b and c. I see it both ways. I usually do it the first way. That’s the way I remember being taught when I was in school. Thanks!

—Michelle D., Connecticut

Answer: Both are technically correct. If you’re writing for a specific publication, it will likely have a style guide it wants you to use. For example, MLA (Modern Language Association) uses the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), so you would write the following: I love apples, peaches, and George Clooney naked.

AP (Associated Press) doesn’t use the serial comma. So you would write the sentence like this: I love apples, peaches and George Clooney naked.

The Copy Bitch always uses the serial comma, unless she’s overruled by the publication she’s writing for. Why use the serial comma? For clarity’s sake. When you write, you want to be clear, and nine-and-a-half times out of 10, the serial comma will assist you in getting your point across.

To wit: consider this sentence: I’d like to thank my parents, William and Mary. How many people are you thanking? You could be thanking your parents and two other people named William and Mary. Or you could be thanking your parents whose names are William and Mary. If the former, I’d write it like this: I’d like to thank my parents, William, and Mary. (Actually, in this example, I’d probably put “parents” last in the series, just for added clarity.) If the latter, I’d write it like this: I’d like to thank my parents: William and Mary.

Here’s another good example from A Writer’s Reference by the late Diana Hacker: The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, much discussion of ancient heresies and midnight orgies.

Are we discussing the midnight orgies or participating in them? Written as is, the reader is left to believe that the discussion includes midnight orgies. The Copy Bitch suspects this wasn’t the writer’s intent, so she would rewrite it like this: The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, much discussion of ancient heresies, and midnight orgies.

If the writer did mean only discussions, then the Copy Bitch would rewrite it like this: The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, and much discussion of ancient heresies and midnight orgies.

Of course, the former sentence sounds much more fun. 😉

Hope this helps!