How Have Semicolon Rules Changed?

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Semicolons should be used in two situations: to join independent clauses and when items of series have commas within the items. If you need a more detailed explanation regarding how to use semicolons click the link to the When Should I Use a Semicolon post. 

However, this post explores how and why English grammar rules change.

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.

So why do grammar rules change? 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. 

When John Morton and Company first published the book in 1874, they 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 Semicolon 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)

What is the difference between the two?  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.

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.

Few 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.   

Grammar Rules Have Become More Objective

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

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