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How to Use the Semicolon

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How to Use the Semicolon
There are those who have a prejudice against the semicolon; personally I find it a very useful stop.
(G. V. Carey, Mind the Stop, 1958)

Stronger than a comma, less forceful than a period (or full stop): put simply, that's the nature of the semicolon. It's a mark, Lewis Thomas has said, that offers "a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come."

But be advised: not all writers and editors are fans of the semicolon, and its use has been on the decline for well over a century. Copy chief Bill Walsh calls the semicolon "an ugly bastard" (Lapsing Into a Comma, 2000), and Kurt Vonnegut has said that the only reason to use it is "to show you've been to college."

Such expressions of contempt are nothing new. Consider what grammarian Justin Brenan had to say about the semicolon back in 1865:

One of the greatest improvements in punctuation is the rejection of the eternal semicolons of our ancestors. . . . In latter times, the semicolon has been gradually disappearing, not only from the newspapers, but from books--insomuch that I believe instances could now be produced, of entire pages without a single semicolon.
(Composition and Punctuation Familiarly Explained, Virtue Brothers, 1865)
In our time, entire books--and websites--can be found "without a single semicolon."

So what's responsible for the declining popularity of the mark? In her book Instant-Answer Guide to Business Writing (Writers Club Press, 2003), Deborah Dumaine offers one explanation:

As readers require information in segments that are shorter and easier to read, semicolons are becoming a less desirable form of punctuation. They encourage overlong sentences that slow down both reader and writer. You can virtually eliminate semicolons and still be a fine writer.
Another possibility is that some writers simply don't know how to use the semicolon correctly and effectively. And so for the benefit of those writers, let's examine its three main uses.

  1. Use a semicolon between closely related main clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet).

    In most cases, we mark the end of a main clause (or sentence) with a period. However, a semicolon may be used instead of a period to separate two main clauses that are closely connected in meaning or that express a clear contrast.

    Examples:

    • "I never vote for anyone; I always vote against."
      (W. C. Fields)

    • "Life is a foreign language; all men mispronounce it."
      (Christopher Morley)

    • "I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean."
      (G. K. Chesterton)

    • "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."
      (Peter Drucker)

  2. In each of these examples, a period could be used instead of the semicolon, though the effect of balance might be diminished. Also, because in each case the two clauses are short and contain no other marks of punctuation, a comma might replace the semicolon. Strictly speaking, however, that would result in a comma splice, which would trouble some readers (and teachers and editors).

  3. Use a semicolon between main clauses linked by a conjunctive adverb (such as however and therefore) or transitional expression (such as in fact or for example).

    Examples:

    • "Words rarely express the true meaning; in fact they tend to hide it."
      (Hermann Hesse)

    • "It is forbidden to kill; therefore, all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets."
      (Voltaire)

    • "The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible."
      (Bertrand Russell)

    • "Science in the modern world has many uses; its chief use, however, is to provide long words to cover the errors of the rich."
      (G.K. Chesterton)

    As the last example demonstrates, conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions are movable parts. Although they commonly appear in front of the subject, they may also show up later in the sentence. But regardless of where the transitional term makes its appearance, the semicolon (or, if you prefer, the period) belongs at the end of the first main clause.


  4. Use a semicolon between items in a series when the items themselves contain commas or other marks of punctuation.

    Ordinarily items in a series are separated by commas, but replacing them with semicolons can minimize confusion if commas are needed in one or more of the items. This use of the semicolon is especially common in business and technical writing.

    Examples:

    • The sites being considered for the new Volkswagen plant are Waterloo, Iowa; Savannah, Georgia; Freestone, Virginia; and Rockville, Oregon.

    • Our guest speakers will be Dr. Richard McGrath, professor of economics; Dr. Beth Howells, professor of English; and Dr. John Kraft, professor of psychology.

    • There were other factors, too: the deadly tedium of small-town life, where any change was a relief; the nature of current Protestant theology, rooted in Fundamentalism and hot with bigotry; and, not least, a native American moralistic blood lust that is half historical determinism, and half Freud."
      (Robert Coughlan)

    The semicolons in these sentences help readers recognize the major groupings and make sense of the series. Note that in cases such as these, semicolons are used to separate all the items.

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