How to Use a Semicolon: Rules and Examples
Semicolons are often misused. In fact, many who are new to writing – and many who have been writing for years – are intimidated by them and elect not to use them. Once you gain some basic knowledge about how to use semicolons the right way, you will be able to incorporate them into your writing with confidence.
What is a Semicolon?A semicolon is a punctuation mark that looks like a comma topped with a period. Doctor and essayist Lewis Thomas explain the semicolon’s purpose perfectly in Notes on Punctuation: “I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years…It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.” So, why are semicolons so often misused, especially when compared to other types of punctuation like commas, periods and question marks? The confusion comes with the fact that the semicolon operates in a kind of murky gray area between commas and periods. As pointed out in in the example above, the period has a note of finality to it, meaning the sentence has come to a stop. The comma, however, is used as a brief pause to separate items in a list or introduce a clause with the help of a coordinating conjunction (if, but, because, etc.). Those two punctuation marks seem clear, but a semicolon? A semicolon is stronger than a comma, but it does not signal finality in the same manner as a period. Consider these three examples: 1. My brother is going to Harvard, because he got excellent grades. 2. My brother is going to Harvard. He got excellent grades. 3. My brother is going to Harvard; he got excellent grades. In the first example, we must use the conjunction because after the comma to introduce the clause. In the second example, the period suggests that the two pieces of information are unrelated. However, we know that they are closely related, so splitting the sentences with a period is both clumsy and a poor use of punctuation. In the final example, the semicolon is acting as a bridge between the two clauses. It is as if the semicolon is saying to the reader: “You have just read this first piece of information, but you should now get ready for this further piece of information, as it is related to the first.” If the first and third examples are correct, does that mean a semicolon is just a fancy way of replacing the comma and a coordinating conjunction? Was the author Kurt Vonnegut correct when he said semicolons represented “absolutely nothing” and “it is only used to show you have been to college.”? Or do we take the side of President Abraham Lincoln, who said: “…I have great respect for the semicolon; he’s a useful little chap.”? As you may have gathered, the use of the semicolon can be a question of style. Many writers avoid them or see no added value using them. In fact, you could probably have a fine literary career without ever using one. However, many scholars are convinced of their importance and continued necessity, even pointing out the integral role the semicolon plays in important texts like the US Constitution. Moreover, there are some more technical instances, such as the separating of confusing information in lists, where the semicolon is a necessary tool rather than a stylistic luxury.
How to Use a SemicolonThere are only a few instances in which it is appropriate to use a semicolon rather than a period. The first way to use this interesting punctuation mark is to help make a complicated list easier to read
- “There were many mayors at the conference including leaders from Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego, California; Albany, New York City, and Elmira, New York; Carbondale, Scranton, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Oregon.”
- “My brother always wakes up before the birds; he’s afraid to miss out on anything.” When semicolons are used this way, they imply a relationship between balanced ideas. Rather than saying because my brother is afraid to miss out on anything, we use the semicolon to imply the because.”
- Professor Neilson realized that her next writing class would be attended by two football players, a basketball star, and three cheerleaders; despite her worries about their dedication to sports, all these students worked hard and made good grades. This method is grammatically correct, but it is rarely used as it doesn’t flow well. If this happens, consider using each separate clause as a single sentence.