The punctuation underdog: Semicolon

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A friend requested an entry on the semicolon, which he feels is underused.  Alas, if this were only the case in literary circles.  According to many an agent and editor’s blog, the semicolon is often overused — thereby producing the dreaded Mark of an Amateur.

Now, of course, using it occasionally and when appropriate is not a problem.  I agree with my friend that the semicolon remains woefully ignored (or worse, misused).  Nothing could be more true in scientific writing, college essays, blog entries :), etc.

I mean, seriously folks, how would you feel if you were always the last piece of punctuation chosen? If no one wanted you on their team? Or, worse, if they picked you and then used you all wrong?

So, let’s look at the correct way to apply the sneaky semicolon to our sentences.

First off, the semicolon is used to connect two independent but related clauses.

  • Ursula K. LeGuin is my favorite writer; her characters are always so believable.
  • Take some toast; I’ll go get the jam.
  • I hate that school; besides, it’s not a very good one.

For these examples, the two clauses could also be separated by a period or a conjunction + comma. However, using the semicolon suggests that the two ideas are closely related.

In the third example — “I hate that school; besides, it’s not a very good one” — the second clause is preceded by an adverb (besides). In such an instance (i.e. with an adverb or explanatory expression), the semicolon is still required.

  • He doesn’t look like a CEO; in fact, he doesn’t even look like a manager.
  • I like how he looks; however, I’m not sure he’s my type

Another option for semicolon use is as a replacement for the word “while”; in fact, it is probably a better choice than “while”.

  • His house is at the end of the street while hers is just next door.
  • His house is at the end of the street; hers is just next door.

Next, the semicolon is also used to separate a compound sentence or to separate elements in a series for which a comma might be confusing.

  • We visited Austin, Texas; Orlando, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Nashville, Tennessee.
  • While I waited four hours for the next train to Tucson, Eric hijacked a hot-air balloon and flew there; but it didn’t matter in the end because he wound up in prison and couldn’t afford the bail.
  • Joining us today is a giant ladybug; a trio of mutated rats performing “Good Night, Ladies”; a recovering-alcoholic vampire; and various gods and goddesses from Mount Olympus.

And there you have it, folks.  Those are the Proper Methods of Semicolon-Use.  Now, perhaps my little post shall promote a wider-spread use of the dear semicolon in non-literary formats.


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