Before I represent myself as someone who cares about punctuation, let me provide some context. I teach freshman composition. That means that I spend most of my time with college freshmen who think they hate writing because their high school English teachers over-emphasized grammar rules. These kids (some of them are actual adults, but most of them are kids) are nearly paralyzed by the cacophony of shrill instructions, strong caveats, and dire warnings swirling around their minds. So you see, I can’t help but care about punctuation. I don’t want to care about punctuation, but my students can’t bring themselves to care about anything else.
I am honest with my students. I tell them that the rules of punctuation are completely arbitrary and their only hope is to memorize them because trying to make sense of them will just make them crazy.
Take the semi-colon. First of all, where did it get that silly name? Yes, it is part of a colon, but its functions aren’t like the colon’s functions. It functions more like a comma, which it also physically resembles. The semi-colon symbol is really just a comma with a dot above it.
A lot of the semi-colon’s frustrating mysteriousness would disappear if the thing had a name that had anything to do with what it does. Therefore, I propose that it be called a super-comma. Please hear me out. This will change your life.
Basically, a semi-colon has two possible functions:
1) joining two independent clauses
I grin every time I see Madeline; there is no other viable reaction.
2) to separate the main parts of a list from mini-lists within it
I own the following gay DVDs: The L Word, seasons one, two, three, four, and five; The True Adventures of Two Girls in Love; Loving Annabelle; and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seasons five, six, and seven.
Notice how both of these situations are scenarios when a student-writer might just use a comma. However, a comma is not strong enough to hold two independent clauses together or to make sense of lists within lists. What is like a comma but stronger? A semi-colon? Does that sound like a strong punctuation mark? What about a super-comma? Now, that sounds like something that could keep a sentence from running-on, doesn’t it?
Many of my students come to me baffled by the semi-colon. They don’t know what it is or how to use it. Hopefully, they leave with super-comma confidence.