Punctuation (Part 2): The elegant yet often-overlooked semi colon

Caryn Gootkin continues her series on punctuation by demystifying the semi-colon, which has been called the scariest punctuation mark.

Semi-colons have a bad reputation; unfairly, I think. The reason may lie in uncertainty about how to use this mark correctly. As there are only two broad uses for the semicolon, I aim to dispel the fear and show you how to use this expressive mark to great effect.

The Oxford Dictionary online defines semicolon as “a punctuation mark (;) indicated a pause, typically between two main clauses, that is more pronounced than that indicated by a comma.” This definition covers the first broad use for the semicolon.

A pause between two main clauses

The first use for a semicolon is to signify a break stronger than a comma but less marked than that conveyed by a full stop (or period). It marks a division of statements that are closely related but require more separation than that offered by a comma.

Some examples:

The semicolon is overused; the comma is not.

In this example the second clause comments on the first and the semicolon juxtaposes the two clauses against each other.

The writing was dense; I struggled to read it.

Here the thought contained in the second clause flows logically from the first.

I wouldn’t use full stops between the clauses in these examples because I want to form a bond between the two clauses, showing how they relate to or contrast each other. The semicolon often balances two ideas that are similar to or opposite from each other. (I like meat; Pete likes chicken. and I like meat; Pete doesn’t).

The semicolon adds nuance and texture to simple writing that allows it to convey more complex thoughts. It works well with conjunctive adverbs such as however and accordingly when moving between two clauses in a compound sentence. [One caveat when using a semicolon in this way: don’t use it with co-ordinating conjunctions (but, and, for).]

The last word on this use of the semicolon belongs to an American colleague I’ve met through Twitter and know only by his handle, @mededitor. He tweeted the following about the semicolon:

“Here’s the deal: Where a semicolon is called for, no other mark of punctuation will be superior. And then you know. It’s all about feeling. You try a comma, not enough break. You try a period, it’s too much.”


Separating items in certain lists

The other way to use semicolons is in complex lists or lists of items separated by commas. This way, the reader is clear as to what forms part of each item in the list.

You can play with your friend on condition that your homework is done; that you have cleaned your room and packed away your clothes; and that you have fed and walked the dog.

People at the party included my cousin, Bob; my aunt, Jenny; my friend, Jack; and my mother.

The semicolon as an inspirational symbol

While researching this column, I came across a group who use the semicolon as a symbol of hope in their self-harm and suicide awareness and prevention programme. Their Facebook page, The Semicolon Project, exhorts “all who self harm, are suicidal, depressed, unhappy, have anxiety, has a broken heart, lost a loved one, draw a semicolon on your wrist. Semicolons represent a sentence the author chose not to end. You’re the author, the sentence is your life.” And thousands of people have posted and tweeted photos of their semicolon tattoos, something I find both beautiful and heart-breaking.

On a lighter note

Now that I’ve (hopefully) dispelled the fear, I leave you with the wise words of our friend Dilbert.