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In Sabriel by Garth Nix, near the beginning of Chapter Two, there is the following sentence:

Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to assume the shape of a soldier; or to become invisible and simply go where it willed, regardless of barbed wire, bullets, hand grenades and mortar bombs – which often didn't work at all, particularly when the wind was blowing from the north, out of the Old Kingdom.

This 58-word construction seems quite unwieldy; it features not only a semicolon and an em dash – commas are used in a similar way, so I wonder whether the author should have split it up into smaller sentences.

When used to divide a sentence up into smaller portions, how do semicolons, commas and em dashes differ in their correct usage?

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    Not an answer, but just yesterday I encountered a sentence like that as well. I originally had three sentences which really broke the flow of the paragraph. On a bit of a whim I tried merging them into a single 59-word long mega-sentence. I will admit its less readable, but it flows so much better. So there is a trade off between flow and readability. In that one case, I chose to go with the former.
    – Nero gris
    Apr 8 '18 at 0:28
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First of all, that semi-colon is incorrect. It should be a comma. Here's why.

A semi-colon is used 1) to join two independent clauses (stand-alone sentences) which are related in content, or 2) to separate lists of items which have commas, aka the serial semi-colon.

The sentence here has parallel grammar, not independent clauses.

Parallel Grammar

Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to assume the shape of a soldier; or to become invisible.

This sentence is using parallel grammar. If you extended it, it would read:

Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to assume the shape of a soldier.
Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to become invisible.

When you have two sentences with parallel grammar, you can condense them, but you do so with a comma, not a semi-colon, because you are removing critical parts of the sentence when you truncate. The condensed pieces are no longer full sentences.

Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to assume the shape of a soldier, or to become invisible.

(I would even have removed to in that construction, so that the parallel starts at the verbs assume and become.)

Serial Semi-Colon

You can use a semi-colon to separate list items when an "item" is a list in itself. So:

We were offered ham, eggs, and English muffins; bacon, pancakes, and sausage; and grits, cheese, and fruit; and we drank Pepto-Bismol for a chaser.

Nix (or the editor) might have gotten confused with that list of weaponry and thought that because there was a long list, a semi-colon was necessary to attach it to the first part of the sentence. It is not.

The Long Sentence

So fixing that semi-colon (and adding a serial comma later), we have:

Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to assume the shape of a soldier, or become invisible and simply go where it willed, regardless of barbed wire, bullets, hand grenades, and mortar bombs — which often didn't work at all, particularly when the wind was blowing from the north, out of the Old Kingdom.

The question in my mind is whether the "didn't work at all" applies only to mortar bombs or also to hand grenades. (I've read the book and I'm pretty sure it also applies to grenades, but you don't know that in Chapter 2.)

Because the descriptive clause is lengthy in itself, lengthy at the end of a long sentence, and ambiguous to boot, I would say that the entire construction is too long and should be cut in two so that it's clearer what the clause is modifying.

Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to assume the shape of a soldier, or become invisible and simply go where it willed, regardless of barbed wire, bullets, hand grenades, and mortar bombs. Explosive weapons, thrown by hand or machine, often didn't work at all — particularly when the wind was blowing from the north, out of the Old Kingdom.

If Nix/editor is completely in love with the long sentence, then we could declare that the clause only applies to mortar bombs, and make it a parenthetical attached to that compound noun:

Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to assume the shape of a soldier, or become invisible and simply go where it willed, regardless of barbed wire, bullets, hand grenades, and mortar bombs (which often didn't work at all, particularly when the wind was blowing from the north, out of the Old Kingdom).

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    I totally agree that the semicolon was misplaced. And to me at least, the sentence does read better as two smaller ones. You've also broken the grammar down into core concepts and given examples so this seems a solid answer.
    – matt_rule
    Apr 8 '18 at 13:34
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I do not agree that this is parallel grammar.

The second sentence after the paragraph is much different than the first. it IS related content and can be condensed by a semicolon, (related by virtue of still talking about "Anything powerful enough to cross the wall") but all the extra baggage after "to become invisible and" applies ONLY to becoming invisible, NOT to assuming the shape of a soldier, and the dash is part of the SECOND sentence, indicating an aside about "mortar bombs" not working, which only applies to the immunity to mortar bombs (and perhaps hand grenades) apparently conferred by "invisibility".

(Perhaps the "Old Kingdom" wind carries some kind of magic that prevents explosive devices from working, I don't know this setting).

Thus the two sentences joined by the semicolon are:

Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to assume the shape of a soldier.

Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall usually retained enough magic to become invisible and simply go where it willed, regardless of barbed wire, bullets, hand grenades and mortar bombs – which often didn't work at all, particularly when the wind was blowing from the north, out of the Old Kingdom.

Thus the semi-colon is justified to join these two independent sentences that DO have related content, it condenses them. A comma is not; because the grammar of the second sentence, though it starts the same, is much more complex by adding "and xxx" as a consequence of becoming invisible. The use of the dash is again a shortening to not repeat the objects that don't work in the aside that explains why they don't work. This further complicates the grammar and prevents it from being parallel.

The grammar is correct as written (or as the editor rewrote it).

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  • the problem is that "Or to become" is not the beginning of a sentence. There is no subject in the sentence as written. It's implied because it's taking the subject from the previous sentence (Anything powerful enough to cross the Wall). Any two clauses joined by a semi-colon are independent — you could change the semi-colon to a period and both sentences would stand alone and be correct. If you do that here, your second sentence, regardless of length, is a fragment because it has no subject. (cont'd) Apr 8 '18 at 20:48
  • Remove the baggage and parentheticals and your second sentence is "Or become invisible and go where it willed." That's not a sentence; it's a fragment. You could write that if you liked, aesthetically speaking, but it isn't a complete sentence. Apr 8 '18 at 20:51

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