Poetry Punctuation – semi-colon use

At yesterday’s meeting of the Poetry Society of Tennessee’s Northeastern Branch (PST-NE) in Gray, TN, the group was critiquing one of my poems. I’d overused the semi-colon. Gulp! Oops! Ben Dugger, our resident poetry expert, from the Masters Program at George Mason University offered to write me out some ‘rules’ . Did I get the university right, Ben? I trust Ben’s opinion, because he helped me tremendously with my senyru submission to the April PST monthly contest and I won first place! Unfortunately, I wasn’t qualified to help him as much, but he still won third place! Look out Memphis the NE branch is doing good.

Ben agreed I could share this information on my blog. His expertise may help other writers as well. These ‘rules’ are not only for poetry, but are useful for prose. So here is a reprint of his message to me on semi-colons.

Ben Dugger wrote –

“I am attaching the semicolon rules to this e-mail.  I wrote the examples this morning (examples always assist me in understanding a concept), and I hope they are sufficiently clear.  As I state in the last paragraph of my “rule sheet,” the most important ingredients in this “semisalad” are TWO INDEPENDENT CLAUSES!    

There are five basic uses of a semicolon in American English:

– use a semicolon between independent clauses NOT joined by a coordinating conjunction  (and, but, or, etc.).

Example: 

Some authors may worry about correct punctuation; others won’t give it a second   thought.

– use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb (however, indeed, nevertheless, etc.).

Example:

Some authors may worry about correct punctuation; however, others won’t give it a second thought.

 – use a semicolon between independent clauses of a compound sentence if the clauses are extremely long OR are themselves subdivided by commas, OR if writer desires a more definitive break than that marked by a comma.

Examples:

Only a free human being can make an absolute choice; but the human being who is free can never be forced to make such a choice; otherwise, he is not truly free.

The first and third lines of the poem are composed in iambic tetrameter; the second line contains a troche and an amphibrach; and the fourth line an iamb and an anapest, with alternate rhyming.

– use a semicolon after expressions such as HE SAID and SHE REPLIED if said expression comes between two independent clauses.

Example:

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy the play,” he said; “just get dressed and go.”

(Note: the writer may use a period after HE SAID in the above example, but a comma is never used,)

– use a semicolon to replace commas in separating elements in a series IF the elements themselves contain commas.

Example:

The award-winning cities were Johnson City, Tennessee; Falls Church, Virginia; and Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The phrase “independent clauses” is stated in all rules of usage for the semicolon, save the last.  In most cases, therefore, if one wishes to use a semicolon, at least two independent clauses must be present.”

                                                   End of Ben’s quote.

My Gregg Reference Manual (Ninth Edition) also has eleven sections which state semi-colon use. They all seem to agree with Ben’s ‘rules’. I only quote the following from the Gregg book which I thought was important for me to know.

The Semicolon – Between Independent Clauses – And, But, Or, or Nor Omitted. However, if the clauses are not closely related, treat them as separate sentences.

The omission of but between two independent clauses requires, strictly speaking, the use of a semicolon between the two clauses. However, when the clauses are short, a comma is commonly used to preserve the flow of the sentence.  Example: Not only was the food bad, the portions were minuscule.

                                        End of excerpt from the Gregg book.

So, now I will determine which (probably all) semi-colons must go away in my poem.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Rose Klix

My website is at http://www.roseklix.com

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9 thoughts on “Poetry Punctuation – semi-colon use

  1. I wouldn’t dare make a comment about poetry but I do use a semicolon between independent clauses in my prose writing. I don’t think I knew the rules, however. It is just something that seems right to me. I printed a copy of your email with the rules which I feel will help me tremendously. Thanks.

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