Proper use of the semicolon is becoming rare; often, no semicolon usage is common. Many people don’t know how to use a semicolon, so they don’t use them at all, but the semicolon can create emphasis or further meaning in a sentence and show connections that a period or a conjunction cannot. When used well, a semicolon can make writing polished and effective.
An editor friend of mine tells me that when he first begins working on a manuscript he often likes to do a search for semicolons, and more often than not, he isn’t surprised when the results turn up that the entire book is completely devoid of their use. Why is that? I think it’s because people don’t know how to use semicolons so they avoid them.
I’ve heard, along with the many arguments to get rid of punctuation, and especially the comma, that the semicolon is no longer needed. I beg to differ. I think of punctuation as being like road signs in a text. The period is equivalent to a stop sign. The semicolon is more like the yellow light that tells us to proceed with caution; we can keep going, but the yellow light alerts us that the situation has changed a little. Similarly, a semicolon tells us one sentence is ending and another beginning, but we can proceed on to the new sentence knowing it has a connection to the previous one. Think what would happen if there were no yellow lights. The result might not be as many accidents as if there were no stop signs, but it would be the next worse thing. Similarly, the semicolon’s power is almost as great as the period’s. Perhaps it should be more aptly named the semiperiod, but in any case, it does serve a need.
Certain situations are appropriate for semicolon usage while others are a matter of taste and style. Let’s look at three common rules for when semicolon usage is appropriate and preferred.
1. Semicolons in a series. This usage is probably the least common and only results when a series of items is referred to and commas are already used, so the semicolons have to separate items and another barrier is needed beyond the commas. It’s somewhat similar to why when writing an outline we use a. b. c. because we’ve already used 1. 2. 3. We can’t use 1. 2. 3. again because it would confuse people. For example:
I went to the store to buy milk, licorice, apples, and coffee.
Here is an example of a series that uses commas to separate multiple items. Now let’s look at an example of a series with multiple items that also uses commas to the extent where semicolons are needed.
We broke the children into three teams: John, Mary, and Judy; Sam, Nate, and Beth; and Marsha, Wesley, and Tom.
In this example, we have three groups, but then in each group are three children so we use the semicolons to separate the groups, and the commas to separate the children. A more complicated example would be:
When doing the dishes, remember to wipe all the grease, sauce, and meat off the plates before you put them in the water; use the dishcloth to wash the plates, but use the scrubber for troublesome residue; and remember to rinse the dishes off before placing them in the rack.
In this example, there are three steps to the process, so the semicolons are used to separate those three steps.
2. Semicolons and Subordinate Conjunctions. This rule may be the easiest to remember. Use a semicolon before the subordinate conjunction and a comma after the subordinate conjunction when that conjunction combines two sentences.
I know; you may not know what a subordinate conjunction is. First, let’s look at coordinating conjunctions. You know those. They are words like: and, but, or, so. We use coordinating conjunctions to connect two sentences as one. For example:
I like apples. I don’t like applesauce. We can change to: I like apples, but I don’t like applesauce.
A subordinate conjunction does the same thing, except it usually has a bit more emphasis. There are many subordinate conjunctions, but they tend to be big words like:
They might also include phrases such as:
for example, for instance, as a matter of fact, in that case
If we inserted a subordinate conjunction into the example above, we could say:
I like apples; however, I don’t like applesauce.
The difference here is we put a semicolon before the subordinate conjunction, and then, we put a comma after it. That doesn’t mean, however, that we put a semicolon before every subordinate conjunction. Look at that last sentence and you’ll see I used “however” with only a comma before it. That’s because it doesn’t separate two complete sentences. We couldn’t say, “That doesn’t mean. That we put a semicolon before every subordinate conjunction.” If we wrote that, we wouldn’t have two complete sentences if we removed “however;” however, we would have two complete sentences if we removed “however” from my earlier example and were left with “I like apples. I don’t like applesauce.”
Here are a few more examples of subordinate conjunctions used both with semicolons and with just commas, the difference depending on their placement in the sentence. Note that each of these sentences has the correct punctuation. Also note that you can use a period instead of a semicolon with the subordinate conjunction. It just depends on the sentence and how much emphasis you want to give it.
I decided I wanted to be an English major; therefore, I brushed up on the rules about semicolons.
Your brother, John, is going away to college; therefore, you can have his room.
I like to read; however, I don’t like to write.
Most writers, however, prefer to use pen and paper over a typewriter.
Stealing is a crime. Furthermore, everyone who steals deserves to go to prison.
Stealing is a crime; furthermore, it is not fair to the storeowner.
(Note that a period is appropriate in the first example here because the second sentence has a stronger emphasis than the first.)
Mark is a good boy; hence, he did not steal the candy.
While you may like chocolate, nevertheless, it will give you acne.
I think painting the room green would be a better choice; for example, it would clash nicely with the purple curtains.
So you would rather go to the movie than clean your room; in that case, I would rather watch TV than make dinner.
3. Semicolons in place of periods. The final way to use semicolons is when you wish to connect two closely related thoughts that may really feel like one thought, but they are, technically, two complete sentences. Let’s look at a few examples of where a semicolon would not be appropriate and where it would.
John and Mary will get married in the spring. The wedding will be in North Carolina.
The wedding, in North Carolina, will be convenient; both John and Mary are from that state.
In the first sentence, no reason is given for North Carolina being the setting of the wedding so a clear relation between the sentences isn’t apparent; however, in the second example, the first sentence tells us the wedding’s location is convenient and the second sentence tells us why—in this case we could have used “because” in place of the semicolon because there is a relationship between the two. Here’s another example:
I hate going into the bathroom after Edna has been in there; she really stinks it up.
This sentence wouldn’t be as effective if we used “because” or a period where the semicolon is placed. It just would cause the sentence to lose a bit of its humorous punch.
Frank is the best football player on the team; even when he was a little boy, he would practice five hours a day.
Again here, the second sentence completes the first by giving an explanation of why Frank is the best player; the semicolon really completes the thought or answers the question the first sentence raises.
Those three simple rules for semicolon usage will help you remember when to use them, and perhaps also encourage you to use them when appropriate or effective to make your sentences flow more smoothly. Polished writers know how to use semicolons; now, so do you.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.