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I’ve been noticing another wave of incorrectly used semicolons. I joined another writing forum to see if I could meet any interesting writers, concepts or tips, and to provide advice. It seems a lot of amateur writers are caught in that transition phase between simplistic writing and using linguistic features (such as punctuation, and in this case semicolons) to spruce up their narrative. Unfortunately, this transition phase tends to see a lot of errors.

So let’s lay down some quick terminology. You should all know what a semicolon is. A comma splice is when two sections of a sentence are joined together by a comma when they can be standalone sentences by themselves (known as a main clause/independent clause). By the way, if you omit the comma altogether (so it’s just two sentences stuck on the ends of one another with no punctuation in between) it’s known as a fused sentence.

I’m still learning about punctuation, today I learned how to use semicolons.

That’s an example of a comma splice. Now there’s a number of ways to fix it.

  1. Separate it into two sentences. I’m still learning about punctuation. Today I learned how to use semicolons.
  2. Use a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but or, yet, so). I’m still learning about punctuation, and today I learned how to use semicolons.
  3. Use a subordinate conjunction (because, since, once, as, if, unless, though, etc.). Because I’m still learning about punctuation, today I learned how to used semi colons.
  4. Use a semicolon. I’m still learning about punctuation; today I learned how to use semicolons.

Let’s just solidify what those examples should have taught you (if you didn’t already know) and refocus on semicolons. The two clauses separated by the semicolon have to be independent clauses. They have to be sentences by themselves. It’s very easy to remember but oddly hard to follow.

On an ending note, I’d like to point out that sometimes rules can be broken. I’m a big advocate of bending the rules for stylistic effect but I’m tired of seeing people use this as an excuse. If you break a rule to create rhetorical effect, fair enough. Just make sure there’s a distinct purpose for you breaking the rule, and that even an idiot can tell you did it on purpose. And don’t overdo it. It’s only special if it’s rare.

While I’m on the topic, here’s another excuse that really ticks me off. Using cummings as an excuse to ignore rules of English. For those that don’t know, cummings was a poet famous for (among other things) ignoring capitalisation in his poems. That’s why people often don’t capitalise his name; it’s sort of like a weird little tribute to him. However, let’s get this straight. First, he wrote poetry, which already bends a lot of rules. Second, he became famous. It’s very difficult to criticise the successful. Third, you are not cummings. There are literally tens of thousands of other writers competing with you (in any sense of the word) and not many people have even heard of your name. You will not be excused for breaking rules. At least not until you become famous first.

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These two are easily confused with each other, and it’s no wonder why! The two are related to each other, blurring the line between. I was guilty of using the two almost interchangeably in my early years of high school, until I read this:

“A metaphor is not language, it is an idea expressed by language, an idea that in its turn functions as a symbol to express something.” – Susanne Langer

Let’s go through a quick definition. A metaphor is a rhetorical device in which the traits of something are attributed to something else, but not in a literal sense. It helps to understand that a simile is a type of metaphor, so let’s take a look at an example:

“But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, Walk o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

The coming of morning is likened to being clad in a “russet mantle” (where russet is a red-orange tinted brown). Now obviously, this is not literal. Morning does not wear any clothing. The russet mantle is a metaphor for the rising sun and the colour of dawn.

Let’s look at symbols now. These are not used in rhetoric or discourse, and is usually a specific thing that represents some other thing or concept. Symbols, unlike metaphors, are not specific or definitive in their interpretation. They carry a wide range of ideas through generations in an almost meme like fashion. Because of this, the symbol’s meaning must be inferred from context. For example, anything long and roughly cylindrical can be considered a phallic symbol; whether or not it was intended that way depends entirely on the context.

Definition aside, this is what really helps me remember the difference. Metaphors are like similes, they liken the principle term to something else (whether it be a thing, idea or process) to endow the principle term with characteristics reminiscent of that which it has been likened to. A symbol is much more succinct; it can be a single thing (usually an object but not limited to one) that is not directly given meaning through comparison (like a simile/metaphor) but whose meaning is created by the context in which that symbol is used. Basically, that means I don’t have to explain a symbol because that’s for the reader to determine for themselves based on what’s been written, whereas a metaphor must be directly explained by the text.

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