Semicolons: how and when to use them

The most popular post I’ve written so far has been the one titled What’s the difference between grammar, punctuation, and mechanics?”  It gets at least one view per day, and most days it tops my list of most-viewed posts.

Because there seems to be interest, I decided it might be helpful to post more often on this type of topic.  Arbitrarily, and mostly because it’s one of my pet peeves, I decided to focus on the semicolon first.  Colons and semicolons fall under the umbrella of punctuation.  The rules regarding their use are fairly straightforward, so writers who know them possess an excellent tool for controlling the “correctness” of their writing.  I was going to write about both punctuation marks in one blog post, but it got to be so long that I’m splitting it up.

Semicolons are far more misused than colons, so let’s start with them.  First of all, I rarely use semicolons myself.  There are really only two situations that call for them, and only one of them is really necessary.  And that one is rare.  But if you’re reading this post, you possibly DO want to use them, so here are the occasions where it’s appropriate to employ them.

1) Semicolons can be used in lists to distinguish among internal units that contain commas.  This is the rare occasion mentioned above.

Leaders of the civic organization include Mary Smith, president; John Brown, vice-president; June Morgan, treasurer; and Patrick Kenshaw, secretary.

2) Semicolons can be used to connect two independent clauses.  An independent clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb that can stand alone as a complete thought.

It stopped raining.

We went outside.

If you want to combine these two independent clauses into a single sentence, you have a few options.  One is to join them with a coordinating conjunction.

It stopped raining, so we went outside.

Note that when you use a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so) to join two clauses, you put a comma before the conjunction.  You don’t use a comma if you’re just joining two words or phrases, as in the following examples.

Mary enjoys reading and writing.

Mary enjoys reading books and writing poetry.

Mary enjoys reading books about birds and writing poetry about whales.

Back to the unnecessary semicolons.  Remember how you need a comma before the conjunction when joining two independent clauses?  Well, sometimes people “hear” the two independent clauses as being so closely related that they don’t use a conjunction between them.

You can’t just have two independent clauses running up against each other, though.  If you have no punctuation at all, you have the error called a “run-on sentence,” or what is nowadays referred to as a “fused sentence.”  If you use just a comma (but no conjunction), you have the error known as a “comma splice.”

WRONG (run-on/fused sentence): It stopped raining we went outside.

WRONG (comma splice): It stopped raining, we went outside.

To correct these errors, you’d want to employ a semicolon between the independent clauses.

RIGHT: It stopped raining; we went outside.

I almost never use this kind of semicolon, however.  If I were to think of “speaking” these two thoughts as one sentence, I would use the conjunction (and, so) between them to show the relationship of the two ideas.

In a rare case, if I were exasperated with someone who kept asking why we had gone outside, I might answer in a way that put the two clauses together without a conjunction.  But then my combination of the two clauses would reveal how annoyed I was that my questioner couldn’t make that simple connection.  My intonation would probably rise on the word “raining” and fall again rapidly on the “we went outside.”

But actually, even in that case, I’d probably use a comma instead of the semicolon.  Yes, that would technically be a “comma splice” error, but I think the comma would better create the “sound” I was after in readers’ minds’ “ears.”  The semicolon seems too stuffy to sound annoyed 🙂

Additionally, the parallel nature of the two phrases might make my “comma splice” not an error at all.  Consider this famous quote from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Because both independent clauses are nearly identical in their structure, the comma acts as a mirror to highlight the symmetry of the two ideas even more.  So if I were dealing with (and regrettably lost patience with) someone who couldn’t grasp how highly related the two ideas of “it stopped raining” and “we went outside” were, using the comma could possibly emphasize the connection even more.

3) Semicolons can be used to join two independent clauses when the second one starts with a conjunctive adverb.  This situation is actually a variant of above situation (#2).  When you connect two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb, you MUST use a semicolon to mark the spot where one independent clause ends and the other begins.  Otherwise, you have a comma splice.

Wikipedia lists many conjunctive adverbs in its entry on the topic.  In my experience, the word “however” is the most frequently used of these.

WRONG (comma splice): The rain did not stop, however, we went outside anyway.

RIGHT: The rain did not stop; however, we went outside anyway.

Seems simple.  But people can get tripped up on the placement of that conjunctive adverb.

Everyone knows that whenever “however” is used in a sentence, it needs to be set it off with commas.

Most of that writer’s novels are quite short, however.

However, most of that writer’s novels are quite short.

Most of that writer’s novels, however, are quite short.

Building on that, let’s say you want to connect two independent clauses, and one of them contains the word “however.”  As shown in these examples, sometimes the “however” comes at the beginning of a sentence; sometimes it comes at the end.  You need to be clear on the meaning of YOUR sentence in order to punctuate correctly.

NO PUNCTUATION (confusing . . . and a run-on sentence): Mary is very devoted to her church however she is well qualified to be president of the civic organization.

Is Mary well qualified BECAUSE she is devoted to her church? Or is she well qualified DESPITE that fact?  Suppose you read the following in the organization’s newsletter:

(well qualified) BECAUSE: The candidates bring different strengths and weaknesses to the campaign.  Mary is devoted to her church, however; she is well qualified to be president.

(well qualified) DESPITE: The candidates bring different strengths and weaknesses to the campaign.  Mary is devoted to her church; however, she is well qualified to be president.

Sometimes people convey the wrong meaning in their sentences simply because they are so used to putting the semicolon in front of the “however.”   Usually “however” is found at the beginning of the independent clause that contains the contrary thought.  But sometimes it comes at the end.  You have to make sure you’re splitting the independent clauses in the right place to convey the correct meaning.

Personally, I’d avoid using a semicolon in this case.  You can just as easily write the two ideas out in separate sentences, which greatly reduces the risk that someone will misunderstand your meaning.

Mary is devoted to her church, however.  She is well qualified to be president.

Mary is devoted to her church.  However, she is well qualified to be president.

Need another reason to avoid using semicolons (except for that rare commas-within-a-list situation)?  Semicolons are frequently misused in spots where commas, elipses, or dashes are called for.

WRONG: The night was dark; ominous.

RIGHT: The night was dark, ominous

OR: The night was dark . . . ominous.

WRONG: He saw the one thing he dreaded most; no, hated most.

RIGHT: He saw the one thing he dreaded most—no, hated most.

WRONG: Duct tape; that savior of otherwise-doomed repairs is always a key item in my toolkit.

RIGHT: Duct tape—that savior of otherwise-doomed repairs—is always a key item in my toolkit.

So I guess that’s it for the semicolon.  It’s a mark I tend to avoid because I think my sentences are usually more clear and effective with other types of punctuation.  Plus, if you don’t use the semicolon at all, you can avoid using it incorrectly 🙂

Because grammar and punctuation are so very context dependent, I would be happy to reply to any specfic questions or observations you might have.  Just post them in the “comments” box  at the end of this post, and I’ll respond as soon as I can.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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5 Responses to Semicolons: how and when to use them

  1. it’s always hard, difficult… i keep on forgetting. hello, dr. katherine… warm regards 🙂 ~ san

    Like

  2. Pingback: Every Writer Needs an Editor | Tales of a Self-Published Author

  3. Pingback: Conjunction |

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