Friday, June 17, 2011

Weekly Lesson: How to Properly Use a Semicolon

I have a confession to make... my two favorite punctuation marks are the ¡exclamation point! and the semicolon. I overly use the exclamation point because I'm used to having a loud voice and everything I say MUST be exciting, right? Right? (Just agree with me)

The semicolon is another story. Mostly it is because I see it misused far too often by others. Yet, when I use it, I want to mark the sentence with a highlighter and write in the margins, "See, that is how you use a semicolon. Like that! Excuse me while I thump my chest." I would, of course, use many more exclamation points, but I'm trying to use them sparingly in this blog.

It does have its uses, but too much of any good thing (e.g. exclamation points, chocolate) can lead to disastrous consequences.


So let's talk about the why first. All punctuation comes down to one thing: pacing. When you see a blank between two wordsb your mind instantly goes to the next word with a slight, micro-second pause between them. However, you stick a period in there and your mind pauses for a split second. If you did as I did in the first paragraph and put an ellipsis (...), or three of those blessed periods, you take a much longer pause. I love to use them for dramatic pauses, or they could represent a trailing off of thought.

The comma, which can both be under and over-utilized, is used to make a short pause. But sometimes a writer wants to have a pause that is longer than a comma, yet shorter than a period. Luckily a nice Italian guy named Aldus Pius Manutius invented the semicolon over 400 years ago which now serves that exact purpose.


Be careful, these should be used sparingly. In fact, some (including myself) would argue to NEVER use them in fiction as they tend to pull a reader out of the story. I know every time I see one I have to stop and think, "Wow, did I just see a semicolon? Did he or she use it correctly?" In nonfiction you can be more liberal. If you actually work it properly into an Email, you could become the envy of your friends and coworkers.


Primarily, you will see it used to join two independent, yet closely related, clauses. Whoa, there! That sounded English textbook-like. Sorry. Let's break that down into real English. An independent clause is a statement that can stand by itself. For instance, a young man can be described as followed:

Billy always wears a red cape.

That is an independent clause. When explaining things like this, you might add more information about Billy. Let's say that bulls always hate him (because bulls hate the color red -- I only know this because of my exhaustive research of Saturday morning cartoons). If you write two independent clauses to describe this, the relationship between the red cape and the source of all bulls' contempt might be missed.

Billy always wears a red cape. All bulls hate Billy.

If one is not familiar with the notion that bulls hate the color red, they might miss that these two independent clauses are related. However, if you replace that period with a semicolon, it changes to:

Billy always wears a red cape; all bulls hate Billy.

As a writer, you are now telling a reader that these two independent clauses are related to each other. There are other ways of doing this, like directly saying "because of this" instead of using the semicolon, but it might mess with the pacing you are trying to establish in a story or explanation.

Another How?

You can also use the semicolon as a comma on steroids, such as when you are listing items that have commas in them. Let's say you are sitting in a room and Bob, the psychologist, walks into the room. After that, Greg, the brick layer, walks in. And George, who everybody knows, follows shortly afterwards. You wish to convey this in one sentence. Without the semicolon, the following sentence looks like five people walk in and not three:

WRONG WAY: I watched as Bob, the psychologist, Greg, the brick layer, and George walked into the room.

The semicolon can help clear up the confusion.

RIGHT WAY: I watched as Bob, the psychologist; Greg, the brick layer; and George walked into the room.

Also, it helps when separating lists of cities and their states.

This summer I went to Las Vegas, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Denver, Colorado.

Without those semicolons, people who are poor at geography might think you visited three cities and three states. (That phrase, "poor at geography," is a link, by the way)

Examples of Bad Usage

Do not use a semicolon when you have a conjunctions (and, but, or, so) between the two clauses. Use a comma instead because your conjunction is now performing the mental pause you were creating with the semicolon.

WRONG WAY: Billy always wears a red cape; therefore all bulls hate Billy.
RIGHT WAY: Billy always wears a red cape, therefore all bulls hate Billy.

Also, while you are technically joining two sentences together, this becomes one sentence; the second independent clause does NOT begin with a capitol letter. (See, that is how you use a semicolon. Like that! Excuse me while I thump my chest.)

Found This recently

I recently found this and had to share:

Ode to the Semicolon 

The simple thoughts of children need only simple punctuation.
A sentence with one verb, one noun, for every situation.
“I want a cookie.” “She hit me!” “When are we going to eat?”
These subject/object pairings up express these thoughts complete.

As we mature, our thoughts do too, become harder to express.
Complexity increases, stacked more and more, not less.
“Optic blasts are awesome, but adamantium claws are better.”
“Should I call up Mary Lou, or send an e.mail letter?”

Related concepts bloom within, so quickly they do roll on,
To show they’re separate (but connected), apply the semicolon.
The sentences could stand apart, but linking them together
Allows the thought to seamlessly express itself much better.

“We danced all night; it was divine.” describes one case in point.
The first and second halves of which each other do anoint.
“We danced all night. It was divine.” How choppy and how stilted!
Without the semicolon how the narrative gets wilted!

Conditional or adverse, it supports concept relations;
O semicolon praise we all, the best of all notations!