When Should I Use a Semicolon?

The semicolon is perhaps the least understood punctuation mark. Rather than try to wrangle this mythical half-colon half-comma beast, some writers steer completely clear of it, but doing so can lead to comma splices,* which are just as bad as an improperly used semicolon. Other writers pepper their prose with semicolons because they think it lends sophistication. However, excessive use of semicolons can seem pretentious or overelaborate. A third category of writers are hesitant to use semicolons in their writing; they use them from time to time but never feel quite sure whether they’ve done so correctly.

Yet the rules are quite simple. There are two major uses of the semicolon…

1. To Merge Two Complete Sentences

Unless your writing contains only very simple thoughts (for example, if you’re writing for young children), sometimes you will probably want the reader to consider two sentences together, but not at the level of the paragraph. For example, you may use two sentences to illustrate a single point or make the same statement in different ways.

  • He’s not a psychic. He can’t read minds.
  • It’s not enough to take a guess. You need to figure out the answer.

In such cases–as so often occurs in writing–you have created a gestalt, in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. How do you get your reader to see the whole, not just the parts?

With a semicolon. A semicolon suggests that two sentences are more closely tied to each other than they are to the surrounding material. In addition to the same thing said in different ways, semicolons commonly alert the reader to:

  1. Cause and effect.
    She kissed the frog; it turned into a prince.
    He begged her not to go; she faltered, but only for a moment.
  2. Different statements on the same topic.
    He didn’t want to use red paint; red reminded him of his grandmother.
    Rain is beneficial; without rain, our crops wouldn’t grow.

A semicolon can also help make it clear what a pronoun is referring to (its antecedent or referent) in cases where confusion might arise.

  • Dick didn’t know how to ride the horse; it wouldn’t have let him anyway. Dick didn’t like Jane. It didn’t matter. (I’m not sure this is the best example, but in the first sentence the semicolon may make it clearer that “it” refers to the horse.)

Any time a reader will better follow your line of thinking when holding two sentences in mind at once, you have an opportunity to use a semicolon. You can even join three or more complete sentences together with semicolons.

  • She was totally paralyzed. She couldn’t walk; she couldn’t speak; she couldn’t even swallow.

Note that when using semicolons in this way, conjunctions are not necessary, and there are some conjunctions you should never use: no “if”s, “and”s, or “but”s. Acceptable conjunctions include “however” and “also.”

(Keep in mind that many times, instead of using a semicolon, you might join sentences using a comma followed by a conjunction or a joining phrase.

  • She kissed the frog, and as a result it turned into a prince.
  • Because he begged her not to go, she faltered, but only for a moment.
  • He didn’t want to use red paint, because red reminded him of his grandmother.

That’s your choice.)

Also please note that a semicolon is not appropriate for joining a sentence and a fragment, as in the following examples:

  • The new color was terrible; godawful.
  • Never again; it would never happen like that anymore.
  • Dinosaurs are not coming back; gone for good.

2. To Help the Reader Correctly Distinguish Portions of Long, Complex Sentences

You can use semicolons in place of commas when things get complicated–when list items or clauses have internal commas.

  • Our founding fathers chose the following colors: red, white, and blue.
  • Our founding fathers chose the following colors: red, to symbolize blood; white, to represent freedom; and blue, because they liked blue.

That’s it! Now go—use semicolons! Impress your friends and colleagues!

(Questions and comments are welcome!)

POLL:


* A comma splice is created when two sentences are joined by only a comma.

  • He refused to explain, he wouldn’t say why he had come.

The prescription is to add a conjunction following the comma, change the comma to a semicolon, or use terminal punctuation and capitalize the beginning of the second sentence.

  • He refused to explain, and he wouldn’t say why he had come.
  • He refused to explain; he wouldn’t say why he had come.
  • He refused to explain. He wouldn’t say why he had come.
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