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Don’t Fear the Semicolon—It’s a Useful Writing Tool

March 9, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 10, 2011

The semicolon has gotten a bad rap, but I’m not sure why. It’s a perfectly acceptable punctuation mark with specific uses. Once you know when and where to use it, you’ll also know where it doesn’t fit.

The semicolon looks like this ;

Semicolons are found between words in a sentence; the semicolon is not a terminal punctuation mark found at the end of a sentence. It immediately follows the letter before it, with no space in between. There is a space after the semicolon, before the beginning of the word that follows.

What can you do with a semicolon? Use it to connect elements in a sentence and to separate elements in a sentence.

Connect independent clauses

Independent clauses are groups of words that can stand alone as sentences. They have a subject and a predicate.

The subject is the noun or the noun phrase—it’s the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something.

The predicate is the part of the sentence that describes the subject or shows what action the subject is performing. It includes verbs and objects or phrases related to the verb.

~  Two sentences can be separated by a period.

Beauregard fell into a well. Beauregard’s momma was not happy.

Hope was in short supply in my world. Anna had made sure of that.

We’d wanted watermelon for breakfast. Now we wanted chocolate.

~  If sentences have a strong connection or you want to emphasize the relationship between them or the second completes the thought stated by the first, consider using a semicolon to join them. Also, consider joining sentences that state cause and then effect.

Beauregard fell into a well; Beauregard’s momma was not happy.

Hope was in short supply in my world; Anna had made sure of that.

We’d wanted watermelon for breakfast; now we wanted chocolate.

~  You can also join sentences with a comma and a coordinating conjunction.

Beauregard fell into a well, but his momma was not happy.

We’d wanted watermelon for breakfast, and now we wanted chocolate.

Don’t use a semicolon to join independent clauses that use a coordinating conjunction (the fanboys—for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Use the comma.

Exception. If one independent clause joined to another with a coordinating conjunction has internal commas, you can separate the clauses with a semicolon for clarity, so the reader knows where each independent clause begins and ends. 

Kelly hoped for peace, joy, and love; she feared she’d get chaos, heartbreak, and oppression; but what she actually got was a pat on the back, a bottle of Prozac, and one “I told you so.”

Not impossible to understand without the semicolon, but perhaps confusing. Of course, you can always rewrite a confusing sentence.

Kelly hoped for peace, joy, and love, yet she feared she’d get chaos, heartbreak, and oppression. What she actually got was a pat on the back, a bottle of Prozac, and one “I told you so.”

~  Some sentences don’t have a relationship sufficient for joining by semicolon.

Beauregard fell into a well. I wanted to read the newspaper.

There’s no logical connection between these two sentences, no reason to join them, so a semicolon wouldn’t be appropriate. However what if we had  . . .

Beauregard fell into a well. I wanted to join him.

These sentences do have a logical connection, and they could be joined by a semicolon.

Beauregard fell into a well; I wanted to join him.

~  Use a semicolon if you join independent clauses with conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases rather than with coordinating conjunctions. (Or simply write them as independent sentences separated by a period.)

Conjunctive adverbs show relationship—cause and effect, contrast, comparison. Conjunctive adverbs include besides, however, thus, otherwise, nevertheless.

Transitional phrases include for example, for instance, in other words, on the other hand, after all.

There are many conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases. My purpose in this article is not to name them all or to list their uses, but to point out that when you join independent clauses with coordinating conjunctions, use a comma. When you use something else—such as conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases—to join the independent clauses, use a semicolon.

Alfred and Winston stood their ground; however, Alfred’s knees were shaking and Winston’s face had lost all color.

Time passes slowly when grief has a tight grip on the heart; nevertheless, it does pass.

______________________________

Separate elements that are subdivided by commas

Use a semicolon to separate elements of a sentence whose internal parts are separated by commas. This keeps each element as a group while separating the parts within elements. Even if only one element has parts separated by a comma, use a semicolon to separate each group. (You are more likely to find this use of the semicolon in non-fiction than to use it in fiction although it is quite valid for use in fiction.)

Think of using this construction to separate a series from another series or to separate lists within sentences.

I’d played basketball, football, and soccer as a freshman; basketball, lacrosse, and hockey as a sophomore; and football as a junior.

The talented Mr. Jonas wrote books on English and French grammar, poetry, and literary criticism; studied anatomy, human evolution, philosophy, and astronomy; and composed sonatas.

Without the use of semicolons, the reader might be confused and wonder what discipline studied anatomy was and conclude that Mr. Jonas wrote books about it as well as about human evolution, philosophy, and astronomy. The reader might also conclude that Mr. Jonas wrote books about composed sonatas.

The talented Mr. Jonas wrote books on English and French grammar, poetry, and literary criticism, studied anatomy, human evolution, philosophy, and astronomy, and composed sonatas.

______________________________

When not to use a semicolon

Don’t use the semicolon to separate items within a list (unless commas are used within an element of the list and the use of commas to separate the items of the list would be confusing*).

The animal ate the apples; the bananas; and even the grapes. incorrect

The animal ate the apples, the bananas, and even the grapes. correct

My hopes were crushed; destroyed by rejection; stomped on by indifference. incorrect

My hopes were crushed, destroyed by rejection, stomped on by indifference. correct

*Eliott stood on the steps, hoping for three outcomes: evidence of his innocence; immediate release, along with the return of all his property; and an apology from Esther, even though he knew she’d never utter the words I’m sorry to him. correct

Don’t use the semicolon to separate an independent clause and a dependent clause (as if they were both independent clauses).

Because the house was so old; we wouldn’t consider buying it. incorrect

Because the house was so old, we wouldn’t consider buying it. correct

We wouldn’t consider buying the house; because it was so old. incorrect

We wouldn’t consider buying the house because it was so old. correct

Don’t use the semicolon as a colon, to introduce a list.

Elmer thought about what he’d wanted; a good name, a successful business, and a son to inherit his riches. incorrect

Elmer thought about what he’d wanted: a good name, a successful business, and a son to inherit his riches. correct

*******

Semicolons have specific uses. Using them—and using them correctly—can add choices to your writing options.

The semicolon stands out and draws attention. Use it sparingly.

Use the semicolon to join short, choppy sentences into a smoother flow.

Use the semicolon to add variety to your sentence styles.

Put the semicolon to work for you.

***

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