On Writing

How Do You Use a Semicolon?

14 Oct , 2018  

I will never understand the hatred of the semicolon. It is a useful and correct punctuation mark, if ever there was one. It has saved me, many times, from being run over by a run-on sentence. A run-on sentence is like the grafting of a lemon tree and a lime, using nothing but a bit but a crooked toothpick. The toothpick is a comma, nosing its way into closely-related, but independent thoughts, without benefit of a conjunction. Joining sentences together with a comma, by itself, creates the dreaded comma splice, the bane of English teachers everywhere.

A comma, alone, isn’t designed to signal, to the reader, the transition from one completed thought to the next. The semicolon rules!

So How Do You Use a Semicolon?

An independent clause is a sentence, usually a short one, that is quite capable of standing on its own. But, instead, it stands next to another, equally independent thought that completes it. The semicolon, then, is like a wedding ring, symbolizing the marriage of two strong ideas that complement one another. For example:

Nicky, a spirited stallion, was Jen’s favorite. She would not tolerate a worn-out nag like Ellie.

It’s fine to leave these clauses standing, headstrong and independent, as separate sentences with a period in between. But one thought completes the other. The writer has some choices to make, in how to signal to the reader what their relationship is. Knowing when to use a semicolon is important; it is key to showing the inseparable nature of two independent ideas. They can be joined:

  • with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so);
  • with a semicolon by itself;
  • with a semicolon, a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, nevertheless, finally), and a comma; or,
  • with a semicolon, a transitional phrase (as a result, in other words, for example, in fact), and a comma.

Here are some examples:

  • Nicky, a spirited stallion, was Jen’s favorite, for she would not tolerate a worn-out nag like Ellie.
  • Nicky, a spirited stallion, was Jen’s favorite; she would not tolerate a worn-out nag like Ellie.
  • Nicky, a spirited stallion, was Jen’s favorite; however, she would not tolerate a worn-out nag like Ellie.
  • Nicky, a spirited stallion, was Jen’s favorite; in fact, she would not tolerate a worn-out nag like Ellie.

Are There Other Uses for a Semicolon?

Sure. You can flirt with your online crush, or you could decorate your house with them.

As the poster says, it’s not just for winky faces!

You can use them in complex lists. Perhaps you have the following on your grocery list: a pat of butter; two pounds of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream; three pounds of chopped walnuts, lightly glazed; and so on. This is very useful when the list items, themselves, contain commas. Try writing the previous list, using commas instead of the semicolons, and you’ll see what I mean. Do I want two pounds of chocolate? (YES!) A bottle of vanilla extract? How much strawberry ice cream? (GALLONS!) Or do I want two pounds of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream?

Semicolons do have their detractors. It’s only fair to warn you that some writers could happily live their entire lives without employing the hard-working semicolon. Sometimes, it seems trendy to shun the semicolon, but the writer who does that is the one who misses out on its delicate, nuanced meaning.

There’s also Project Semicolon, dedicated to preventing suicide. The semicolon, that beautiful outcast of the punctuation world, seems a fitting symbol for all the stories that are not over yet.

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17 Responses

  1. Esha M Dutta says:

    Loved your post, Holly! Never thought that a semicolon had so much to it. I confess I do use them often—mostly in complex sentences. The semicolon project was something new for me. Had no idea there was something like that. And, btw, I loved your drawing. I think it’s very ornate and pretty.

    • Thank you! I learned about the Semicolon Project while searching for a featured image for this post! Funny how this goes with your recent post… I decided just to make my own image, in the end, but couldn’t resist giving them a mention.

  2. Rummuser says:

    Why not simply use short sentences? That is what my English teacher in school asked us!

  3. i fall into the category of sparsely using the semi colon. NOw after this post, I would think,, and get it right, hopefully

    • It’s okay to use it infrequently. There’s nothing wrong with using a period, instead. In fact, if you can’t use a period, you can use a semicolon, instead, unless it’s in a list of things. Think of it as a thought-linking period. 😊

  4. This post was educational for me. I never use the semi-colon, depending hugely the comma instead. Now, I should be more aware of when to use semi-colon.

  5. Thanks for making this subject interesting. English was the one class where I paid full attention. It’s nice to know that those old lessons still have relevance.
    I try to spice up my writing with effective pauses. As you wrote, the nuances can be brought out–or hidden–by the decisions we make about punctuating our pages.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    • We must be the bastions of proper writing!

      On the one hand, language evolves, and that is a good thing – ever read Beowulf in the original Old English? ::shudder::

      On the other hand, language devolves, through carelessness and exclusionary language – like slang (now “bad” means “good” and “sick” means “really good”??) – and the reduction of nuance, the use of only simple, monosyllabic words, rather than reach for a dictionary or thesaurus. (Or Google. How hard is it to type: define ?

      One of my favorite sites is etymonline.com. Are children even taught about the history and underlying meaning of words, these days? Do they even know how many choices they have, in their language arsenal? My husband and I argue over the oversimplification of language (mainly because it’s one of those buttons he can push and tease me with, without starting WWIII in earnest). I keep telling him I want the BIG box of Crayola crayons, not the 8 color box, or the 16, or even the 24. Most days, I’ll settle for the 64, but the 128 is my happy place. He reminds me that my monitor does millions. I concede that may be more than is useful, in terms of vocabulary, and that the first goal is to communicate effectively. But, I argue, we will eventually be reduced to grunting at each other. Then I grunt at him to go hunt steak, burn meat, woman hungry. 🙂 It’s all good, till he gets into spring cleaning mode and starts eyeing my overflowing bookshelves.

      • I assert that, if we begin to grunt, it will be a transcendent event, not regressive. The grunt will be nuanced and, perhaps, coupled with gestures to efficiently convey much more meaning than 1,000 words.

        Just as our computer chips have shrunk while packing in more power, so might language evolve to the point where ambiguity is bred out of our collective DNA.

        But then, what will we do with all of our books? 🙂

        Cheers,

        Mitch

      • Burn them. I’ll be dead by then.

      • Ha-ha. The last remnants of the lifeform known as trees will be book-fuel. Solar energy was a fad that didn’t take into account the amount of fossil fuels required to manufacture the panels!

        Cheers,

        Mitch

      • Oh, dear – hadn’t really thought of that (re: solar). I do wish collection and storage of solar were more…efficient? I think we could get there, if we have the will to try (and the funding). But that is a good point.

      • Yeah, I was reading that efficiency is only at 15 to 20% now. Whether that is fantastic or dismal, it means there is room for improvement. But, I really hope that books don’t become relics, like 8-track tapes. LOL

        Cheers,

        Mitch

      • Books survive hundreds of years. What other tech can you still read after 50-60 years?

      • Rosetta Stone? Does that count?

        Cheers,

        Mitch

      • Nothing that predates paper counts. 😂

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