Scared of semicolons? Everything you need to know but were too afraid to ask!

semicolons keep calm posterLet me start by saying that I’m rather fond of semicolons.

But I’m not so enamoured when they’re used incorrectly or ineffectively…

Out of all the punctuation marks in English, the one that seems to catch most people out is the semicolon (sometimes written as semi-colon). Many people – including a lot of writers/editors judging from the books I read – don’t really understand when and how to use this nifty little tool.

The result? They either avoid it like the plague or chuck it in randomly here, there and everywhere.

To a word nerd like me, this is akin to scratching nails on a blackboard; semicolons really aren’t that difficult as long as you follow a few simple grammar rules.

What ARE semicolons and what purpose do they serve?

Ask anyone under 20 and the likely answer you’ll get is that they’re used to make winky faces! Yes, they are rather handy for this, but semicolons have in fact been around much longer than the internet.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a semicolon as “a punctuation mark (;) indicating a more pronounced pause than that indicated by a comma”.

Collins English Dictionary defines it as “the punctuation mark (;) used to indicate a pause intermediate in value or length between that of a comma and that of a full stop”.

In other words, semicolons are stronger than a comma but weaker than a full stop. Their use in contemporary English is on the decline, which is a real shame as they add a certain nuance – and welcome variety – to written text.

“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Tips on semicolon usage

The most important thing to remember is that there are only two main uses for semicolons:

1) To separate items in a list (or series) if the items themselves contain commas or other punctuation marks. My favourite cities for weekend breaks are Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; and Barcelona, Spain.

The same rule also applies to longer sentences comprising a mixture of key and supplementary information, with semicolons separating each major grouping. If you’re going to the supermarket can you buy milk, as we’ve run out; bread, for our sandwiches tomorrow; cheese, but not Cheddar for a change; and whatever you fancy for dinner tonight.

This use of semicolons is particularly prevalent in business and technical writing, both of which tend to feature longer and more complex sentences than marketing copy.

2) To join two related main clauses (i.e. complete phrases containing a subject and verb) that are NOT joined by a coordinating conjunction. I rang her mobile three times; she didn’t answer. Connecting the clauses in this way indicates a closer relationship than if they were separated by a full stop.

Things to watch out for

Because of widespread uncertainty over when to use semicolons, the most common mistake is to use a comma instead of a semicolon to join two sentences together. This is called a “comma splice”. Compare I thought he liked me, now I’m not so sure with I thought he liked me; now I’m not so sure. Hopefully you’ll agree that the second version is much clearer and reads better.

The other mistake that people often make with semicolons is to use one in place of a colon. There’s only one drink that gives me a hangover; red wine. The book I’m currently reading is littered with such misuses, including: “It’s about doing things properly; teaching him application, perseverance and discipline. In both these cases, a colon would be the correct form of punctuation as the second clauses are not main clauses.

Conclusion

So, you see, there really is no reason to be scared of semicolons.

With a little practice, you’ll soon be sprinkling them into your writing with a hint of smugness; just don’t get too carried away as nobody wants ‘semicolonic’ irritation!

If you’re in need of some more punctuation advice in plain English, check out my other posts on apostrophes and hyphens.

Are you a fan of semicolons or do you think they’re old-fashioned? Do you use them in your writing or are you a bit wary of them?

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2 comments on “Scared of semicolons? Everything you need to know but were too afraid to ask!
  1. I love semicolons, but at college I got seriously fed up by the regular negative reactions of supervisors with semicolonic prejudice. So I’d say I’ve received aversion therapy a la ‘Clockwork Orange’.

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