Many writers avoid semicolons, with the exception of using them to make winking smiley faces. Is it any wonder? After all, the thing looks like a colon and a comma got drunk and had a baby.
I wouldn’t be writing about semicolons today, but I have received a couple emails inquiring about them (which was random, but very flattering). I thought I would take a crack at explaining the usage here for me to reference in the future.
Note* There are more uses for semicolons than what I will cover today, but these examples address the specific questions I was asked. Semicolons can be confusing enough without me dumping out 1000+ words.
For me, it was a long time before I ever understood what the heck a semicolon did. It seemed every time I saw one used in writing, a period could have worked just as well. However, the semi-colon does have a use. Let’s talk about it.
Let’s snag a definition to work from. The Chicago Manual of Style states, “In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would” (p. 325).
When I read definitions like these it just makes me more confused. Let’s break it down and explain the parts and pieces. After all, some of us may be murky about what independent clauses and conjunctions are.
First, an independent clause is just a fancy pants way of saying a sentence. In a nutshell, this is saying a semicolon connects two sentences together that could both stand on their own two feet. So yes, you could use a period instead. But what the period can’t do is make the two sentences join and emphasis one another. That’s the job of the semicolon.
The definition also mentioned the semicolon could only be used if the two independent clauses (sentences) were not joined by a conjunction. Conjunctions are just words used to connect sentences together (and, but, or, yet, so, and the list goes on).
Here is a very basic example of a conjunction. “My name is Corey, and I write blogs.” The conjunction, “and,” combines two sentences (My name is Corey. I write blogs).
The Elements of Style offers three great examples we can look at to link everything we just talked about together.
Example 1 uses semicolons to combine two sentences and create one thought.
Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.
Example 2 uses a period to break sentences into two separate thoughts.
Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining. They are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five. We cannot reach town before dark.
Example 3 uses conjunctions to join the two sentences.
Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining, for they are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark.
There is a different feeling in each of these examples. It is especially noticeable if you read the examples aloud. The semicolon pulls the sentences together, the period splits them with a hard stop, and the conjunction joins them while slowing the pace.
Semicolons also find use when listing a series of items where a comma is used for each item. Take this sentence for example, “The fantasy genre includes Lord of the Rings, The Dark Elf Trilogy, and Dragonriders of Pern.” If I wanted to provide an example of a character from each of these books to help the reader recognize the titles, then I could use semicolons.
Example: The fantasy genre includes Lord of the Rings, with Frodo; The Dark Elf Series, with Drizzt; and Dragonriders of Pern, with F’nor.
Probably the most common error I see regarding semicolons is using them to list items. For this you would want to unleash the full colon, none of the watered down semi-colon nonsense.
Example: Corey thought about all he would eat after posting this blog: pizza, ice cream, homemade ramen, and egg rolls. [A big thank you to Thomas Weaver for finding a mistake in this example and helping me correct it. Check the comments section to see the blunder in its natural habitat.]
That’s as far as we go today. Hopefully this helped. Personally, I rarely use semicolons in my writing. If I do, I have to stop and think about whether it is proper or not. When I edit, I typically do a triple-take to make sure it’s correct. Trust me, I have the pages on semicolons earmarked in my style guides 😉
Did I screw this up? Do you have a better way of explaining it? Do you use semicolons very often? My skin is thicker than an elephants so don’t be afraid to correct my blunders or offer additional insights. This is a daily blog post after all, and I tend to write them hastily. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!