How Have Semicolon Rules Changed?

Sometimes it seems like grammar rules are constantly in flux. This can be frustrating, especially with punctuation marks like semicolons. The main semicolon rules are that they should be used to connect two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction. Semicolons should also be used in items of a series where the individual items have commas. That’s a mouthful.

Semicolon rules have changed.

So have semicolon rules always been the same?

No, semicolon rules have changed. But the changes happened a century ago, so the rules you learn now should last you awhile.

Before we explain the change, let’s take a minute to explain why these things happen. The answer lies in whether a language is living, dead, or extinct.

When a language is no longer used in a population, it is considered dead. Many consider Latin a dead language.  Although it is true that Latin is still spoken in some contexts, such as Catholic Masses, it is not a primary language used in daily conversation. People don’t speak Latin on a daily basis (except maybe in Latin class), so the language cannot change and adapt to societal needs.

A language no one speaks is considered extinct. The UNESCO Atlas of Endangered World Languages is an excellent resource for that.

English, however, is a living and evolving language, and I found evidence for that in one of my favorite books—Practical and Critical Grammar by Noble Butler.  This textbook is considered culturally important, and you can buy a reprint on Amazon. 

First published in 1874 by John Morton and Company, the publishers initially sold the hardback copy for 85 cents.  This seems high for 1874, when a pound of butter was 15 cents and a pound of sugar 7 cents, but when have new textbooks ever been cheap?

The Semi-Colon Rule in Practical and Critical Grammar

Most textbooks today say something like a semi-colon is used to separate two independent clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction:

There is a fierce conflict of good and evil; however, good is in the ascendant and must conquer at last.

Compare that to the rule in Butler’s textbook:

“The semi-colon separates from the principal proposition something not so closely connected with it as portions set off by the comma would be.” (pg. 265)

The difference between the two?  To my eye, the modern definition is rule-based:

  • An independent clause is a group of words with subject and verb that can stand alone (a sentence, in other words).
  • A conjunctive adverb is a type of adverb that connects two sentences.
  • Two is two.

Butler’s rule leaves room for interpretation.   Who decides what is not closely connected?  The writer, the reader, or the teacher?

Here’s Butler’s example sentence:

There is a fierce conflict of good and evil; but good is in the ascendant and must conquer at last.

I do not know of many teachers or editors who would let that stand.  (Grammarly flagged it.)  The word but is a conjunction, and in almost all cases, two independent clauses (sentences) connected with a conjunction should be punctuated with a comma.   

In a living language rules will change over time.

Although there are exceptions, grammar rules have become more objective and less open for interpretation.  Even today, some rules are changing.  For example, when the subject’s gender is unknown, the pronoun “they” is acceptable (although some people argue that the sentence should be written so that the noun is plural).

Maybe the move to objective, standardized rules results from the industrial revolution, the assembly line, and the necessary standardization of society.  That sounds like grist for another post, doesn’t it?

If you want more information and examples about semi-colons, check out the When Should I Use a Semi-Colon post. 

If there are any changes in grammar you would like to see, leave them in the comments.

Semicolon rules

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