The Poor, Misunderstood Semicolon
This post was originally published in August 2011.
Wait a second. Did you just hear that?
There it is. You heard it, too. Don’t try to tell me you didn’t.
That was the sound of a semicolon in the throes of a self-esteem battle.
How Do You Use a Semicolon?
If the semicolon was just a little less top-heavy, then it would be a comma, and rightfully used and appreciated. Sadly, many writers have a confused relationship with the semicolon, not really sure how or when to place it in their lovely sentences. Some have rejected it outright, including Kurt Vonnegut, who said that the only reason to use a semicolon would be “to show you’ve been to college.”
Don’t worry, little semicolon. Your virtues will not be lost on this audience as long as I have a say in it.
In all seriousness, the semicolon is probably the most misunderstood button on a keyboard (except for maybe whatever the heck the little hat over the 6 is). When used properly, however, the semicolon can connect phrases in a beautiful and sophisticated way. For example:
Martin squinted as he read over his news brief; he was in need of a good pair of glasses.
The semicolon in this sentence connects the two independent thoughts without bringing the narrative to a full stop in the way that a period would. A comma is completely inappropriate here because that would lead to a comma splice, and as we have previously discussed, comma splices are evil.
Semicolons can also be used as a kind of supercomma, and should always be used in a list when separating objects that also have commas. Take the following sentence:
Diana included Athens, Greece; Paris, France; and Vienna, Austria, on her list of honeymoon cities that were not to be confused with their American counterparts in Ohio, Texas, or Virginia.
See? However, in order to use the semicolon properly when you’re not making lists, it’s important to remember a few things.
1. Each clause of the sentence needs to be independent clause.
You know what an independent clause is, right? You’re writers! Sometimes, however, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the semicolon, and you’ll want to use it everywhere. Don’t. If you’re going to use it, make sure that each clause can stand on its own as a fully formed sentence. If it helps, mentally separate the two clauses with a period to test their independence.
Justin didn’t walk; he ran. Justin didn’t walk. He ran.
2. Use them sparingly.
It can get exhausting for your reader if there is too much going on in one sentence. If there is too much going on in each sentence for a full paragraph, that may result in reader mutiny, and you’re going to have trouble bringing them back. Use the semicolon to connect ideas that are related, but don’t try to connect every single idea in a paragraph. Periods are your friends (at least in this context).
Ellie subtly flared her nostrils; the smell of lilac and lavender filled the air; it reminded her of her summers in the hills of Ohio; she and her cousins would make crowns of daisies and give them to their mothers.
For the love of God and the sanity of your readers, do not do this.
Ellie subtly flared her nostrils. The smell of lilac and lavender filled the air; it reminded her of her summers in the hills of Ohio. She and her cousins would make crowns of daisies and give them to their mothers.
It takes some practice, but you’ll start noticing places in your writing where a semicolon would add a welcome breath to the prose.
Practice writing with semicolons. Write about the following prompt using as many semicolons as you can (create a couple lists if you have to). However, if you overuse the semicolon, you will be punished; severely.
Spend at least fifteen minutes on this.
Prompt: Billy is going backpacking through Asia and needs to get vaccination shots.
About Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.