Semicolon to the rescue: The Supercomma

Superheroes are all the rage these days. It turns out that society loves a good story about someone saving the day. There’s something that keeps us interested when we see people who on the outside might seem ordinary, but once they change their clothes they become someone extraordinary. We love them! Batman. Wonder Woman. Superman. Sailor Moon. Spiderman. The Hulk. Batgirl. Ironman.

Thinking about people who play different roles got me thinking about a conversation I had with an editor friend about semicolons. Here’s the gist of our conversation about semicolons: either you know how to use them and seem like a superhero, or you avoid them altogether. But what about the lesser known role of the semicolon, the role that it only performs when absolutely necessary and when other punctuation marks can’t take on the job…I’m talking about the supercomma!

Supercomma definition

We know that in the punctuation world a comma separates or sets off information. And the semicolon links information. But what happens when a comma needs some extra help when it is separating items in a list? It calls in the semicolon! A semicolon works to separate phrases or clauses in a sentence that already contains internal punctuation. AKA: the supercomma.

Fun fact: The semicolon is stronger than a comma, but can’t do the work of a period.

Aside: One thing that I find interesting is the difference in opinions about the semicolon. As Mary Norris suggests in her chapter “A Dash, A Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar” from her book Between You &Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, British folks (including Canadians like me) like the semicolon, whereas Americans tend to avoid the formality of them. Interesting! On the other hand, American Patricia T. O’Conner has no problem with the semicolon in her book Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.


It’s probably overkill to use the name supercomma, when semicolon works just as well, but it’s definitely not as fun. What is a supercomma (after all of this buildup)? Here are some examples:

  • My English teacher, Ms. Ireland, had never been out of the country; my Biology teacher, Mr. Finn, was actually Irish and traveled all over the UK; but my Art teacher, Mrs. Mave, was the most travelled of them all.
  • My next travel adventure, which I hope to take very soon, will most likely include stops in Paris, France; Vienna, Austria; and Budapest, Hungary.
  • My favourite bookstore has new, local, and bestselling books on the main level; children, general fiction, and travel books on the top level; and nonfiction books on the lower level.

Was the work super? Maybe not. But using a comma to separate these phrases would have muddled with the clarity of the ideas. This is a job for the semicolon.

Send out the supercomma signal

Are supercommas for everyday, every page? Not really. Like all superheroes, they aren’t necessary to include all of the time. In fact, if the problem can be solved without the hero, that’s probably best. But if your sentence starts to get phrases and clauses with punctuation in a list, you better call in the extraordinary. The supercomma.

As always, punctuation is a tool for writers to add clarity into their writing. If you find yourself constructing a sentence that needs something more powerful than a comma to separate lists, don’t be afraid to try the semicolon. It can handle the job!

Happy writing.

Photo by Esteban López on Unsplash

Dangling Modifiers: When things aren’t clear

There are some grammar rules that society loves to poke fun of. The writers on Brooklyn 99 love a good grammar joke. (See Season 2, Episode 3 “Jimmy Jab Games” when Holt says, “You want to hear the funniest thing ever? I also split an infinitive and she didn’t notice”.) Poking fun of someone who knows the rules to a language we think we know so well is definitely satisfying. I think for the majority of folks, language is a mystery…until you learn the secrets!

Let’s just be clear: it’s not the end of the world to split an infinitive (To boldly go…). But what about dangling modifiers? Even as grammar rules seem to relax, dangling modifiers are still on the list of things to know and fix. Why is that? If you think about grammar rules, often they are put in place to add clarity. By fixing dangling modifiers, you are able to communicate with more clarity to your reader. So, just what are dangling modifiers, how to fix them, and why does it even matter? Read on, good reader.

Dangling modifiers

Let’s start at the beginning. What the heck are dangling modifiers? See if you can spot them in this list below:

  • While out for a dog walk, the leash broke.
  • Laughing loudly, the children noticed me.
  • Wild and creative, the world of high school seemed small.

Fun Fact: dangling modifiers are all about what is missing.

That was a trick . . . all of these sentences have dangling modifiers.

  • While out for a dog walk, the leash broke. The leash wasn’t on a walk. (Add a subject to add clarity: While I was out for a walk, the leash broke.)
  • Laughing loudly, the children noticed me. The children weren’t the ones laughing loudly. (Add clarity: As I was laughing loudly, the children noticed me.)
  • Wild and creative, the world of high school seems small. The world of high school (in this case) is not wild and creative. (Add clarity: Wild and creative, she thinks the world of high school seems small.)

What are dangling modifiers?

Modifiers modify. Modifiers give more information about something in a sentence. Modifiers are the fun parts that help us differentiate and add detail to our writing. For instance, a hotdog can be significantly modified by adding the word vegan.

So how do modifiers end up dangling?? Simple: the word or phrase or thing that is being modified is missing. For example, While out for a walk, the leash broke. In this case, the leash isn’t doing the walking, but who is?? The subject here is missing. Or, Laughing loudly, the children noticed me. It’s implied that there is a subject . . . but it’s not clear. Are the children laughing loudly, or are you laughing loudly?

Fun fact: There is a difference between dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers.

Misplaced modifiers

So now that we know about dangling modifiers, what about misplaced modifiers (which are similar, yet different). Well, a misplaced modifier is when all of the words are there, but just in the wrong order.

  • The community association president hopes to hire a teacher for young children with a university degree. (So…these kids have university degrees?! Fix this sentence by rearranging the modifier: The community association president hopes to hire a teacher with a university degree to work with the community’s young children.)

Fixing dangling modifiers

Fixing a dangler is pretty easy if you remember that it’s all about clarity.

  • 1. Place the modifying word as close as possible to the one it modifies.

Fix 1: Laughing loudly, the children noticed me: The children noticed me as I laughed loudly.

  • 2. Provide the missing subject.

Fix: While out for a walk, the leash broke: While I was out for a walk, the leash broke.

  • 3. Make a dangling phrase into a subordinate clause.

Fix: Wild and creative, the world of high school seemed small: Because I am wild and creative, the world of high school seemed small.

If dangling modifiers caught your attention, and you love playing with words, be sure to Google “funny dangling modifiers” and look at some of the images that show up. You won’t be disappointed!

In the end, dangling modifiers help us remember that we need to add clarity to our writing so that we can bring our readers along with us. Correcting dangling modifiers are as easy as adding in a single word (like a subject), or might require an entire sentence re-write. Either way, hopefully now that you know what dangling modifiers are, you can work to avoid them (or work to revise them) in your own writing.

Happy writing!

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash