On the Use of Semicolons
By Evan Braun
The semicolon is one of the most divisive and misused punctuation marks in the English language; the evidence is all around us. (See what I did there?) Because semicolons are misunderstood, they are thrown into sentences all the time, sometimes as a demonstration of a writer’s command of English punctuation. Ironically, a misplaced semicolon often demonstrates the opposite.
Semicolons are not, however, the most challenging punctuation mark to master. As you can see by the chart above, the comma is the most complicated and versatile punctuation mark by a wide margin, followed by the apostrophe, hyphen, colon, and quotation mark. Perhaps in future posts, I’ll dig into these nitty-gritty punctuational details. (For example, the difference between hyphens, em dashes, and en dashes is the stuff of an uninformed writer’s nightmares.)
The semicolon is rather far down the list, and in fact is quite simple. It has only two uses: it joins two related complete sentences, and it separates list items when commas exist in the list items themselves. If a semicolon appears in any other context, it shouldn’t be there. Chances are, if it’s used wrong it should be replaced with a comma.
The first possible use of a semicolon is to join two related but complete sentences. Let’s look at some real-world examples where authors have gotten it wrong.
I ask myself; what has kept me in my house all these years?
Whenever I see a semicolon while editing, I apply a simple test: (note the use of a colon here, not a semicolon; are you confused yet [hopefully not]?) is there a complete sentence on both sides of the semicolon? Could that semicolon be replaced by a period? If not, there’s something wrong with its placement. In the above sentence, this sentence should be written with a comma:
I ask myself, what has kept me in my house all these years?
That one may seem a little obvious, so let’s look at a somewhat more complicated example:
The algorithm that sorted the data was his baby; years of tweaking code and watching information flow across his screens.
Again I apply the complete-sentence test to this piece, and I find it wanting. This time, what comes after the semicolon is only a fragment; it cannot stand on its own. Here’s a suggested edit:
The algorithm that sorted the data was his baby; it represented years of tweaking code and watching information flow across his screen.
Another possibility, depending on the author’s intent, would be to change the word “flow” to “flowed.”
There’s a second way to use a semicolon, and it’s in the context of a complicated list. Sometimes items within a list have commas of their own, and so a simple comma is not sufficient to differentiate where one list item ends and another begins. This kind of semicolon will appear often in technical writing, but you’ll also see it in other places. Here’s an example from a real book I came across recently:
Aren’t you supposed to realize about the time you quit your paper route that boys and girls are different; that Santa Claus is really your father; that the Easter Bunny never laid a chocolate egg in its life and that this whole God story is just another line by adults to stop you from having fun? Well, not necessarily.
In this case, we have a fairly long list. However, these semicolons should really be substituted with commas, because there are no other commas within the list items to complicate them. For that matter, if you subscribe to Oxford comma rules (I do, and I’ll write a post about it soon), then you should consider adding a comma near the end of the list, to separate the Easter Bunny clause from the God clause. So let’s rewrite this:
Aren’t you supposed to realize about the time you quit your paper route that boys and girls are different, that Santa Claus is really your father, that the Easter Bunny never laid a chocolate egg in its life, and that this whole God story is just another line by adults to stop you from having fun? Well, not necessarily.
Before we go, let’s take a look at a complicated list where semicolons are correctly applied:
My favourite sandwiches are peanut butter, jelly, and banana; ham and cheese; and honey, butter, and Nutella.
As you can see, if these semicolons were replaced by commas, the list would be very confusing and wouldn’t make much sense. By the way, anyone ever try a honey, butter, and Nutella sandwich? Excuse me while I run to the store…
There you have it. Whenever you’re tempted to insert a semicolon into your writing, apply these two simple tests to ensure you’re using it correctly. Until next time, happy punctuating!
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.