Have you ever almost used a semicolon, but abandoned the idea for fear of doing it wrong?
Or do you avoid semicolons because you worry they make your writing seem too stuffy?
If so, you aren’t alone.
Throughout modern history, semicolons have been one of the most misunderstood and polarizing punctuation marks in existence. For this reason, many writers shy away from using them altogether.
There are strong opinions about the semicolon’s use. Some writers and editors believe it makes things too choppy. Others believe a comma and coordinating conjunction do the same job. Still others fear it makes their writing seem elitist.
In this post, I’m coming to the defense of the semicolon. Get ready to learn more about what it is, how it is used, and why as an editor I use it often in my work.
What is a semicolon?
According to Amy Einsohn’s and Marilyn Schwartz’s authoritative text The Copyeditor’s Handbook, the semicolon can act as a strong comma or a weak period.
How are semicolons used?
Most style manuals agree that the semicolon has three jobs:
1. To join two related independent clauses without using coordinating conjunctions
2. To precede a conjunctive adverb when linking independent clauses
3. To separate complicated items in lists where commas are already used.
Semicolons can also be used to delineate items in references, but since reference formatting is not text writing, we won’t give into that here. However, if you’d like to learn more the University of Pittsburg Library system has a fantastic resource.
Let’s break down each of those three uses with some examples.
Using semicolons to directly join two related independent clauses
An independent clause is a clause that contains a subject and predicate that can stand alone, that is, it’s a complete sentence. Two related independent clauses have a logical connection to each other. With commas, a coordinating conjunction (“and”, “but”, “yet”) is needed to join two independent clauses. The short pause of the comma and the coordinating conjunction confirm that these ideas are related, but the comma may seem too hurried or trivializing. The long pause of a period may separate the ideas too much, thereby undermining some of the logical connection. The semicolon provides a middle ground for the pause—still evidencing the connection but allowing more space.
Using semicolons before conjunctive adverbs when linking independent clauses
Semicolons are also required when conjunctive adverbs (“however”, “therefore”, “indeed”, etc.) are used to combine two independent clauses. Adverbs qualify and describe verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and even sentences. If one independent clause emphasizes or scrutinizes another independent clause, a conjunctive adverb preceded by a semicolon can be used to show this relationship between the clauses.
For example: “We aimed to create ideal conditions for the desired reaction; however, we still identified by-products in the batch.”
Here, “however” emphasizes that we did our best to optimize and understand the reaction conditions. The substitution of “however” with “but” would emphasize the subsequent clause more.
Separating items containing commas
If you list a series of items and one or more of the items has a comma, separating those items with commas may confuse your reader. Thus, a semicolon is warranted in this situation to separate the parts of the list.
“I’ve lived in Baltimore, Md; Tampa, Fl; and San Antonio, Tx.” Here a comma is conventionally used between the city and state so a semicolon should be used for clarity.
“We optimized the reaction’s reagents; additives, bases to act as hydrogen ion scavengers; duration; and temperature.” I specify the type of additive and its function. But the meaning would be different if commas were used: “We optimized the reaction’s reagents, additives, bases to act as hydrogen ion scavengers, duration, and temperature.” This suggests that additives and bases were needed.
Semicolons: Misunderstood and Undervalued
The jobs of a semicolon are straightforward. Still there are many people who find them frivolous or worse:
“If you have to use a semicolon, you didn’t write the sentence well enough,”—Personal communication.
“All they do is show you’ve been to college,”—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“They are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same. They really have within them deeply within them fundamentally within them the comma nature,” —Gertrude Stein.
One argument against the semicolon is that a comma or period can do the same thing. Furthermore, because it gives a slightly longer pause than a comma, it may seem too strong or abrupt in some contexts. On the other hand, it is a shorter pause than a period and may seem too weak.
In Defense of the Semicolon
,Personally, I think the semicolon has a place in a writer’s toolbox.
First, a semicolon can quickly fix comma splices, where two related—but independent—ideas have been joined with a comma. A semicolon can be swapped for that comma, making the sentence grammatically correct and retaining the intended pause and relationship.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, semicolons help vary sentence length. As discussed in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, a writer can control the audience’s attention by varying sentence length. Too many short independent clauses ending in a period can give the writing a choppy feel. This choppiness leads to reader fatigue. In contrast, sentences that are too long can be confusing and unclear, leading to disinterest; therefore, intentional use of the semicolon helps retain the reader’s interest.
Semicolon advocate Arthur Plotnik asserts in his book Spunk & Bite, “With a semicolon, there is a split-second of tease. . . . Semicolons inject expectation into sentences, and in literature expectancy is a good thing; it creates subliminal tension followed by release: the quiet ah’ of art.”
Here is an example Plotkin’s idea in action.
Take this sentence:
“It was a dark and gloomy morning, and the houses almost disappeared as I walked past.”
Although the sentence is technically correct, it lacks tension. But if we edit it to read as follows, much changes: “It was a dark and gloomy morning; the houses almost disappeared as I walked past.”
The semicolon adds tension and begs the question, “where were you going?”.
It's Time to Embrace the Semicolon
Whether you are a new writer or a seasoned one, it’s time to embrace the semicolon and use it to strengthen your writing.
Remember, semicolons can
1. provide longer pauses than commas and shorter pauses than periods
2. delineate relationships between related independent clauses
3. separate items in a complex list
4. add tension and interest to the text
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Susan is a scientist turned writing service specialist. Her interests include the clear communication of scientific research and complex subjects.