The Dreaded Semicolon

Or, when the heck should you use a semicolon?

Semicolons are one of the most misunderstood members of the punctuation family. Some people use them everywhere, whereas others never dare to insert one. Never has a piece of punctuation instilled so much fear in so many people. So when should you use one? Well, there are a couple of different circumstances in which semicolons can, and should, be used.

1) To link two independent clauses. This is the main purpose in a semicolon’s life, which can be broken down as follows:

  • Linking two closely related thoughts. Some people go south for the winter; others prefer to freeze their butts off.
  • Linking clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs (however, also, otherwise, consequently, hence, etc.) or transitional phrases (as a result, for example, on the other hand, etc.). We allowed the children to choose their own dinner; consequently, they ate chicken nuggets and french fries.
  • Linking clauses connected with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, so, yet) if the clauses are already punctuated with commas or if they are lengthy. Deer, being herbivores, eat grass, leaves, berries and mushrooms; but raccoons, being omnivores, will eat just about anything they stumble upon.

A good rule of thumb when trying to decide if you should use a semicolon for this purpose is to see if you could replace it with a period. Independent clauses should be, well, independent. If they could stand alone but they refer to the same idea, you can probably use a semicolon.

2) The other use for a semicolon is to link items in a list or series when any of the items contain commas. The most important Greek gods are Zeus, the ruler of the gods; Poseidon, the ruler of the seas; Hades, the ruler of the underworld; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

There you have it. The semicolon demystified. Now you can go forth and use semicolons confidently; there is no need to fear them anymore.

Thank you Jamie for submitting the topic!

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6 thoughts on “The Dreaded Semicolon

  1. Very helpful and love the examples. Hey, but what about the colon? Never sure if I’m using it correctly. Will there be a showdown between the colon and semicolon? Or do they get along because their functions are uniquely specific?

    The suspense is killing me!

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