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The Poor, Misunderstood Semicolon

This post was originally published in August 2011.

Semicolon thewritepractice.com

Wait a second. Did you just hear that?

Pick meeeee…

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

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.

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  • http://twitter.com/JessVerve Jess

    This is why I could never finish reading the Anne of Green Gables series. LM Montgomery sure knew how to do SEMICOLON SPLICES after the first book. We’re talking four and five independent clauses PUT TOGETHER WITH SEMICOLONS.

    *ahem*

    It is extremely annoying to readers. Go Liz!

    • Elise Martel

      You mean like this one?!
      “Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down
      into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and
      traversed by a brook that had its source away back in teh woods of the
      old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in
      its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool
      cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet,
      well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run pass Mrs.
      Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it
      probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window,
      keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children
      up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never
      rest until she had ferreted out of the whys and wherefores thereof.”
      One sentence, people! Yes, I agree, the semicolon became the terror of those books. I think the reason she used semicolons with such rigorousness in this sentence is because Rachel Lynde thought in run-on sentences that just never ended. They connected, one to the next to the next. If she put a period in somewhere, someone else might actually get to say something. Fancy that! So she made her thoughts all one long sentence so that no one else could get a word in sideways or edgeways or any-other-ways. She practiced this, of course, by thinking in run-on sentences; her mind was one interconnected pot of spaghetti.

      • http://www.thesilverflute.blogspot.com/ Rebecca Foy

        I agree, guys; L. M. Montgomery did use semicolons a little excessively. (I have trouble with that, too; I tend to use these “–” and these “…” too much.) But she uses an older style of writing– a different style of voice that is rarely seen nowadays. I think that’s why I love her writings so much– the way she constantly uses certain styles of piecing sentences. It’s unique. It reminds me a little of my own writer’s voice. My mind is one interconnected pot of spaghetti, too. :)

        If you guys didn’t like Anne much, I would suggest reading some of the books Montgomery wrote later in life. (My favorite is “Emily’s Quest.”) You can tell her writing skills improved immensely over time.

  • http://twitter.com/JessVerve Jessica Verve

    This is why I could never finish reading the Anne of Green Gables series. LM Montgomery sure knew how to do SEMICOLON SPLICES after the first book. We’re talking four and five independent clauses PUT TOGETHER WITH SEMICOLONS.

    *ahem*

    It is extremely annoying to readers. Go Liz!

  • http://twitter.com/Msadaku Msadaku

    Many people in some communities today still don’t have their lives back in order; many lost electricity and still don’t have it back; many lost everything—literally, no home to go to. Many find their lives in the midst of a pile of rubble; many are unable to salvage their lives from there. Many lives are shattered forever.

    This excerpt came from one of my posts at http://msadaku.blogspot.com

    How did I do?

  • http://twitter.com/Msadaku Msadaku

    Many people in some communities today still don’t have their lives back in order; many lost electricity and still don’t have it back; many lost everything—literally, no home to go to. Many find their lives in the midst of a pile of rubble; many are unable to salvage their lives from there. Many lives are shattered forever.

  • http://twitter.com/WriteOnNetwork Write On Network

    Great post on my favorite punctuation mark! Can’t wait to share with our followers.

  • http://twitter.com/WriteOnNetwork Write On Network

    Great post on my favorite punctuation mark! Can’t wait to share with our followers.

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  • http://MikeLoomis.CO/ Mike Loomis

    I’ve read other posts about these little buggers, but THIS explanation with stick with me. Thanks!

  • K. Wodke

    Such a good article. Semi-colons have been an enemy. Maybe now I can make peace with them.

  • W. Bailey

    The semi-colon been ‘berry, berry goot to me!’, but not sure I been berry goot to it. I am old enough to remember SNL when it was really funny. The above line was originally: Beezball been berry berry goot to me.

    Billy threw the brochure on the desk and pounded on the desk with clinched fists. “I can stand to face down some cold-eyed snake; I can take down a gorilla with a pen knife, but I cannot stand even the thought of a hypodermic needle! Why do require these stupid vaccinations? Now I have to decide if I want to go to Asia more than I don’t want shots.”
    Billy had always wanted to hike in Asia; he had fallen in love with the area after seeing an IMAX movie about the area. He had set his goal for a two-month hike when he graduated with a degree in Asian Studies. His senior year he had begun the serious planning and saving funds. He set priorities; he needed air-fare; he needed clothing; he needed maps; he needed a really good camera; and he needed a passport and visa.He estimated the total cash he needed, and he divided each category of expense and started putting a portion of each paycheck from his part-time job into envelopes for each item. He left the passport and visa until spring.
    The passport was no problem; the visa was turning into a big problem.
    If he had counted correctly, he would have to have seven vaccination or booster shots. H was so frightened of a hypodermic that he had risked blood poison twice rather than get a Tetanus shot. He would gladly be sedated, but that would involve the placement of an IV in his arm. He did not want a shot to avoid a shot; he was smart enough to see the hole in that logic. What should he do?

  • Mikki

    Billy’s gut clenched thinking of needles; he’d had real trouble with needles. Four years clean now, and off with his buddies to Manchuria after finally raising sponsorship.
    Manchuria! Manchuria is the very image of tough people; how could they even start to convince these people of God’s love?
    That is the place; Steve, Kindra and Billy had known all along. Now they couldn’t get there soon enough, to meet ‘Bodu’, waiting with space in his family yurt.
    In his mind Billy imagined sweeping bare spaces and howling wind. Nervously he checked off the simple packing list, took a breath, then shouted, ” Yipe Yiii Yeow!, pretending to hear his voice echoing across vast Mongolian spaces.

  • Davey Northcott

    This is a great post and I have to say I entirely agree. Semicolons are a fantastic tool for writers as long as they aren’t over used. Don’t be afraid of them! Semicolons can be beautiful too :)

  • http://www.dawnyspace.blogspot.com.au/ Dawn Atkin

    Billy is going backpacking through Asia and needs to get vaccination shots.

    Therese slumped onto the couch.
    “Come on Billy; be a man.”
    “I hate needles; they hurt. I’ve always hated them. Why do you have to have so many? Surely they can put it all into one super shot.”
    “Oh for goodness sake, toughen up you pussy.”

    Therese smiled at Billy but she could feel her patience waning. She pulled herself up and grabbed her car keys off the coffee table.
    “Come on let’s go.” She pulled her raincoat off of the spindly Ikea stand and turned toward the front door.
    “Where are we going?”
    “We’re meeting Mum for lunch remember.”

    Billy grunted, picked up his mobile from the small stand in the hallway and followed Therese out into the sleet and foreboding grey winter day.

    “This weather is depressing,” he said.
    “Exactly. That’s why we’re going to the exotic tropics. Temples, and beaches and palms and disease. Ya hear me; disease.”

    Therese gripped the steering wheel; turned left on Grayson. She swung a sharp late turn in to White Drive. The back wheels screeched as they slid around the corner.
    “What are you doing? Where are you going?”
    “To the clinic.” Therese smiled a little, checked the rear vision mirror and accelerated into the middle lane.
    “What? No way. Turn back. You can’t make me do it.”

    Therese indicated left then sharp right and swung wide into the back corner of the clinic car park.

    “There’s some Rescue Remedy in the glove box. Have a swig. That’ll calm ya nerves.”

    Billy fumbled around in the dark and pulled out a small flask of whiskey.
    “That’ll do” Therese said opening the drivers door and pulling the keys out of the ignition.
    “A man’s drink.” She winked, climbed out and slammed the door.

    Billy was smiling. That’s why he loved her so. She’d had it all planned right down to the calming amber tonic that prickled feisty and hot down his throat.

    “Where would I be without you?” He said through the misty window to Therese standing at the front of the car with her hands on her hips; all nonchalant warrior and insistent.

    Billy took another deep swig, as any real man would, and with whiskey smile he joined his commanding Aztec princess for a walk through the sleet into the chamber of needles and pain.

    • http://www.picturebritain.com Abigail Rogers

      Brava! Very well written in my opinion. It reads a bit like a movie. Perhaps a little too much emphasis on the coat hanger, but the conscious placement of people, the “disease” comment, and the overall idea, are very good.

      • http://www.dawnyspace.blogspot.com.au/ Dawn Atkin

        Thanks Abigail.

  • http://www.picturebritain.com Abigail Rogers

    Billy sat in the hard chair awaiting his doom. There were no colors there; he saw only white walls, white upholstery, white pictures in white frames, and the ominous white of the doctors zipping in and out like flies in lab coats. “I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t even be here. This was a stupid idea from the get-go.”

    It was after watching “The Beach” two months ago; back when he still watched movies. Rick had pushed aside the bowl of popcorn and said, “Why aren’t our lives like that, like in the movies?”

    “I guess it’s because we don’t have the guts to do what movie people do. That and we’re poor; we’re fat; we’re lazy.”

    And that’s what kickstarted the whole crazy caper. The “backpack through the wilds of Asia” idea came from the movie, and once that idea was in their heads there was no getting it out. So they trained; they trained hard. Jogging once every two weeks turned into running every morning before work. Billy spent hours looking at photos of gibbons; he booked seedy cheap hostels; he purchased the most expensive backpack he could find.

    But the shots were something else. The white-robed flies looked more menacing the longer he looked at them, and Billy began to wonder if this wasn’t the end of the line for their dramatic adventures.

    • Stella

      Hi Abigail,

      Nice work. Your use of semicolons was seamless for the most part. In fact, the first time I read your piece, I finished it before realising I was supposed to be looking out for semicolons. The only place it felt a bit forced was at ‘we’re poor; we’re fat; we’re lazy’. It would feel more natural to say ‘we’re poor, fat and lazy’, although your usage isn’t technically wrong since those three clauses ARE independent clauses.

      Enjoyed your elaboration on why Billy decided to go backpacking through Asia, too. You did a good job portraying the ordinary guy who wants to become extraordinary, with little details like the bowl of popcorn, or how Billy paid for cheap hostels but an expensive backpack. (In fact, do I detect a tongue in cheek jibe at how real backpackers spend their money?)

  • Michael Cairns

    Thank you :)

  • http://writehorse.net/ Sarah Hood

    Shortly after reading this post, I was writing by hand and accidentally wrote (or drew) an upside-down semicolon. :)

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  • wkspizer@gmail.com

    Going backpacking in Nepal, Billy was required to obtain vaccination shots; his fear of shots was almost overcoming his joy of the prospect of visiting Nepal. This land of
    supposed peace and love was a dream of his since his teenaged years; his life
    being limited as a child, he was now at an age where he could work toward his
    dreams coming true. Life was good; follow your dreams!

  • http://www.dawnyspace.blogspot.com.au/ Dawn Atkin

    Also posted this in the ‘Bring Your Setting to Life’ practice, but thought it was a semi-colon practice as well so sharing in both. (…hope thats ok :-))

    The shock ripped through her; the floorboards reached up to grab her calves. His voice echoed down the greasy black of the passage way. Its eternal dark tunnel swallowing the acid bite of old man words.

    She stood alone. Solitary in the middle of the swirling room as it spun a tangled web of taunts from yester–years, and spat from its darkened corners and unpolished recesses, three generations of unspoken shame.

    “I’ve known for a long time,” she called into quivering walls, where peeling paint hissed and sneered at her claims. “I’m not going to pretend anymore,” she added bravely.

    The front door whipped open wide; its creaking rusted hinges rasped an invitation to leave; to walk away from the smear of past mistakes and lies. She obliged; lifted her skirt to her knees and took flight into the crisp silver promise of the moonlit night.

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  • http://thefeministgrandma.typepad.com thefeministgrandma

    I was really amused to follow a link to this post. I just finished final edits on a novel, and since I have a weakness for semicolons, I searched them. I was amazed to discover two or three on every page! I got rid of about 80% of them without much pain. But I never before realized the extent of my addiction

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Wow. That’s a lot of semi-colons!

      Joe Bunting
      joebunting.com