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Le point-virgule (Semicolon)

Let’s discuss the point-virgule, a punctuation sign that is as confusing in French as it is in English. Its usage in French tends to become rarer, but it remains a potent tool for anyone willing to clarify their style.

Is the point-virgule the addition of a point and a comma? Not really.
According to Doppagne (1), it is a punctuation mark that is worth more than a comma and less than a point, if that means anything to anyone.

Typically it is used in modern French writing in the following cases:

  • To separate long clauses where commas are already used. Some writers like long sentences and the point-virgule gives their readers an opportunity to breathe a bit.
  • To separate clauses that are independent of each other. It allows writers to keep in the same sentence elements that are loosely connected.
  • To separate the elements of an enumeration into higher logical grouping. The comma is used in this this case to separate the lower groupings.
  • To replace a comma, where the comma can be confusing, for example after a number (remember that the English decimal point is replaced by a comma in French).

Please note that the first letter of the word after a point-virgule is in lowercase (except if is a proper noun). Note also that when reading, the length of the pause on a point-virgule is intermediary between a point and a comma.

(1) Doppagne, Albert, La bonne ponctuation, Duculot 1978
(2) Wikipedia, http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Point-virgule

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