Dec 14 2010


Should I use semicolons? And when? — Alexander from Dubai

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., one of my favorite writers of all time, had this to say about the most misunderstood punctuation mark: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Many other writers will disagree with Kurt. So it goes.

The semicolon can be a pretty useful little fella, but it is often used incorrectly, or used correctly but too often. Once in a while, it can serve a purpose another punctuation mark or word doesn’t do as well. The vast majority of the time, however, it can easily be replaced with something different.

If you use more than one semicolon every few pages, you’re probably overdoing it.

Connecting separate but related statements

The most basic purpose is to connect two independent clauses to show a closer relationship between the two statements. An easy check to see if you’re using it correctly is to read your sentence using a period instead of a semicolon. Both sides of the sentence should be complete and stand alone. For example:

Fred is a very funny fellow. He wears silly hats to make people laugh.

These are two independent sentences, each grammatically correct on its own. Tie them together with a semicolon rather than a period, and it reads:

Fred is a very funny fellow; he wears silly hats to make people laugh.

That’s also correct. The semicolon creates less of a pause between the two halves of the sentence, and it ties the two clauses together so readers know these two statements are closely related. I’d argue that readers will know the two statements are related even with the period. If there’s no need for the semicolon, why use it? As Kurt alluded to, it doesn’t do anything useful.

Do not use a comma in place of the period or semicolon. That creates a comma splice in which two independent clauses are tied together improperly.

WRONG: Fred is a very funny fellow, he wears silly hats to make people laugh.

That sentence is missing something. It needs a period, a conjunction, or even a semicolon as a last resort. You could also write it:

Fred is a very funny fellow WHO wears silly hats to make people laugh.

But I’m not an absolutist against semicolons. There may be times when you find it very useful to tie those two independent clauses together into a single sentence. Just be judicious and don’t randomly sprinkle semicolons all over the page in an effort to impress an agent, an editor or readers. They won’t be impressed.

Another point to keep in mind in this usage is NOT to use a conjunction (and, but, or) with a semicolon. Sometimes the two independent clauses can be tied together with a conjunction and be more effective than the semicolon.

Fred is a very funny fellow, but he also has a serious side.

That’s more effective than if it was written with a semicolon:

Fred is a very funny fellow; he also has a serious side.

Don’t use both the conjunction and the semicolon. Conjunctions and semicolons do not get along.

WRONG: Fred is a very funny fellow; but he also has a serious side.

Semicolons in a list

Another use of the semicolon is to separate longer clauses in lists. This is helpful if the individual items in the list contain commas, so you need to show a clear break between items:

The people I work with have many different personalities: Fred, a very funny fellow who wears silly hats; Joyce, a serious young woman with a killer instinct for closing a sale; and Kurt, who is always ranting about semicolons.

In this case I used a conjunction with the semicolon. In a list, they call a truce and get along with each other out of necessity. If I’d used only commas to separate each item and description, it would have been confusing. If I didn’t need the description, only a list of names, then I wouldn’t use the semicolon:

…personalities: Fred, Joyce and Kurt.

In dialogue

One word: Don’t. People do not speak in semicolons. Semicolons are a literary device to use on certain occasions, but avoid them in dialogue.

There are other occasional uses for semicolons I won’t cover here, but these are the main places where you might find one useful, or where you might decide you can do without it.

I recommend doing without it unless you really think it conveys an added level of meaning to the reader that a period or conjunction wouldn’t.

And if all that still isn’t clear, here’s my favorite resource for understanding semicolons:

The Oatmeal on Semicolons

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