A semicolon, the hybrid between a colon and a comma, is often considered one of the more pompous punctuation marks.
In reality, it gets a bad rap just because few people know how and when to use it.
The semicolon is used to indicate a pause, usually between two main clauses, that needs to be more pronounced than the pause of a comma.
So what are the practical ways to implement this little grammatical workhorse?
Read on to see how it can help you merge connected thoughts, separate listed items clearly, and form a bridge to another sentence.
Why use a semicolon?
In the classic grammar and style manual The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White (first published in 1919), the case for the semicolon is laid out clearly: “If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.”
In simpler terms, that means you can use a semicolon to separate two complete sentences that are related but not directly linked by a connecting word like “but” or “so.”
For example: “She didn’t show up to work today; she said she had a headache.”
Who uses semicolons?
The short answer: copy editors, professional writers, and you – if you’re savvy.
“If words are the flesh and muscle of writing, then punctuation is the breath, and a good writer will make good use of it,” says Benjamin Dreyer of Penguin Random House, author of the forthcoming book Dreyer’s English.
The semicolon is one of his favorite pieces of punctuation, and it was one of America’s great authors, Shirley Jackson, who inspired the admiration.
“Shirley Jackson loved her semicolons,” says Dreyer.
“I think that’s all the defense they need.”
“The first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House – one of the great opening paragraphs I can think of – includes three of them.”
Here is Jackson’s sublime first paragraph: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Why use a semicolon instead of a comma?
According to Dreyer, “independent sentences don’t hang together well with commas, unless they’re as terse as ‘He came, he saw, he conquered,’” he explains.
“For anything of greater length, a semicolon is simply better, stronger glue than a comma, while a period is too divisive.”
It’s also grammatically incorrect to link two complete sentences using a comma; a semicolon acknowledges that they’re two complete sentences, even if they are related.