(Most) Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Semicolon

Caiaimage/Tom Merton/ Getty Images

Caiaimage/Tom Merton/ Getty Images

Although it’s great to have your comma usage perfected, no writer’s repertoire is complete without a working knowledge of when and how to use that more elusive punctuation mark, the semicolon. True, content article writers rarely use it. But can you be absolutely sure that you haven’t actually needed to use it?

Let’s take a look and see.

The Brief Rise and Fall 

Although it appears in at least one fifteen-century manuscript to preface an abbreviation,

Valerie F is a 6-Star writer at WriterAccess

Valerie F is a 6-Star writer at WriterAccess

the modern semicolon first entered the English lexicon in the late sixteenth-century, according to Stephen Reimer, a professor at the University of Alberta. It reached its apex of popularity in the eighteenth century and has been losing ground ever since, in spite of — or perhaps because of — enthusiastic overuse by writers like Henry James.

Increasingly seen as effete and flowery, the semicolon was pretty much relegated to academia and elite journalism by the end of the twentieth century. And that’s a shame, really, because there are times when this punctuation mark really hits the spot.

A Look at Standard Usage

You only need the semicolon for two things: (1) separating two independent clauses in a compound sentence and (2) separating complicated items in a list:

  • One writer specializes in B2B marketing; another prefers to write health articles.
  • On deck for the weekend, a typical freelance writer might have the following: a blog post for a nonprofit devoted to protecting potable water in the developing world; three pages of content for a Realtor’s website; and a case study for a mortgage analytics company.

An antiquated variation of the first use, often found in eighteenth and nineteenth-century writing, is substituting the semicolon for a comma in a regular compound sentence:

  • She finally finished writing the case study at 4 am; and afterward, she was too wired to sleep.

This is perfectly correct; however, it’s a precious and anachronistic read.

Common Mistakes 

My students love to use the semicolon to isolate dependent and nonrestrictive clauses from the main body of a sentence, like so:

  • When Mrs. Mallard’s husband arrives, she dies “of a joy that kills”; which is ironic.

As a skilled writer, you are unlikely to make an error like that. You may, however, be guilty of creating comma splices, using a comma to connect two independent clauses instead of a semicolon:

  • Her least favorite assignments were product descriptions, she labored over each one far too long.

After years of reading comma splices like the one above, I have decided that this common error actually makes a good case for the semicolon. Comma splices are a mechanical error, but they are not a syntactic one. When writers use them, they don’t want a full stop. The clauses are “too connected” to be split into separate sentences.

And that is precisely when you use a semicolon. Two ideas that have a strong connection require a semicolon; the punctuation mark signals to the reader that you will be elaborating or restating your thought.

 

 

6-Star writer Valerie F is a professional writer with over 20 years of experience in creative writing, academic research, copywriting and editing, content writing, grant writing, and program development.


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