How to use a Semicolon

More than a wink

The semicolon is a stifling little piece of punctuation. In fact, it makes some of us uncomfortable. If you’ve only used the semicolon as a winking face, this is the post for you.

Put simply, the semicolon is less final than a period, and has more stopping power than a comma. It can help make sense of complicated lists and join bulky ideas together. These tips will help you get the most out of this often-overlooked punctuation mark.

Two separate, but equally important clauses

Some of us prefer the book over the movie; others let the movie sell them on the book.

Yes, I said the same thing about the comma, but steady on, let me finish. Have you noticed that the conjunctive word is missing? These are words like “but” and “and”. The semicolon takes the place of the conjunction and allows the two clauses to work together (e.g. here the word “while” could have been the conjunction – tip: a semicolon can help if you don’t know which conjunction to use).

So, to make the semicolon work, delete the conjunction.

Golden rule #1: the clauses should be closely related (i.e. talk about the same thing). Obviously, this does rule doesn’t apply to a list.

Lists with a difference

Famous Elizabeths include: Elizabeth, the Queen; Elizabeth, the Queen mother; Elizabeth, the actress; and Elizabeth, the activist.

We already know that the comma is your friend when it comes to lists. You should not use a semicolon in place of a comma unless your list has certain properties. In the above example, there are commas present within each item in the list (e.g. Elizabeth, the Queen mother). Placing another comma between each item would cause confusion.

So, the semicolon is used to separate units of items (i.e. thingy, the thingy) that contain a comma.

And now for something completely different

Monty Python
And now for something completely different – Monty Python

Most kids these days don’t appreciate the outdoors; consequently, they lack the vitamin D that sunlight provides.

A semicolon is used before a conjunctive adverb. Remember with the comma, you can start the sentence with such an adverb (e.g. indeed, moreover, consequently, etc.) and place a comma straight after it. Here this adverb is used to join two sentences.

This can help you keep an idea together as opposed to breaking it up into other sentences. You want to do this if “breaking it up” risks sending your intended meaning into the misty realms of oblivion.

Writing with a semicolon

Golden rule #2: Don’t use a semicolon if a comma can do the job.

A semicolon is great for keeping things coherent; especially if your sentences contain long, complicated ideas. Remember: the purpose of all punctuation is to create clarity. The semicolon SHOULD NOT empower you create monster sentences. My advice is to keep your work concise. Short sentences won’t get lost in a paragraph that is itself coherent (more on that later).

The Last Word

The comma post was rather popular, so I think it might be worth doing a few of these posts. If you have questions about any parts of writing (punctuation, etc.), please let me know in the comments.

If you find this kind of advice useful, please like, share, and subscribe. Your support means a great deal!

Sources

Bryce, E. 2015. How to use a semicolon. TED-Ed [Online Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th-zyfvwDdI [Accessed: 23/07/2018].

Grammarly. n.d. Semicolon. Available at: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/semicolon/ [Accessed: 23/07/2018]

Wisconsin Writing Centre. 2018. Using a semicolon. Available at: https://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/Semicolons.html [Accessed: 23/07/2018].

Top Image: The Officer and the Laughing Girl, by Johannes Vermeer (unknown). Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

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