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November 30th, 2005

Semicolons and colons / building service / my bad, part 2

by Barbara Wallraff

Marc McGarry, of Newton, Mass., writes: “I’m fond of using semicolons, but there is a gray area between them and colons that I’ve never understood. Grammar books say to use a colon between two independent clauses when the second clause explains or illustrates the first clause; yet these same books give examples of appropriate uses of semicolons that appear to do just that: ‘I’m not good at telling jokes; I always forget the punch line.’ ‘The house stood empty for years; no one would buy it.’”

Dear Marc: Specifically, you’re asking how to use these two punctuation marks between two sentences, or clauses. (Each of them can be used in other places too.) The difference between them can be subjective. Try thinking of a colon as, in effect, an arrow that points from the first clause to the second. Or, as Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, puts it, a colon “promises the completion of something just begun,” often by “indicating a step forward” from the first clause to the second. See how the colon you used before your example sentences does that? Garner’s explains the semicolon as a sign that the two thoughts are “closely connected” in some other way. The parts of your example sentences seem to me to be nearly equivalent; they’re saying the same thing in different words. That’s why a semicolon is better in them than a colon.

Rashmi Mueller, of Galveston, Texas, writes: “My question is about the newly crafted mission statement for our medical school and university. The new slogan is going to be ‘Building excellent service together.’ I asked my chairman if this was grammatically right, and he said yes. It sounds very awkward to me. Can one ‘build’ service?”

Dear Rashmi: If you want my advice, this isn’t a battle worth fighting. Most mission statements and organizational slogans are good examples of what happens when English is written by committee. Rarely do they make sense, and once all the interested parties have given up on -- excuse me, approved -- them, you’ll never get them changed.

I notice that the initial letters of the words in the slogan spell “BEST.” Whoever came up with it is probably very proud of that. You’d do better to forget the slogan and stay focused on actually providing excellent service.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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