The semicolon

General definition of the semicolon

The semicolon is more formal than the colon and the dash. Professional writers today tend to use it much less than writers of several decades ago did.

Some people think of the semicolon as a "strong comma"— something between a comma and a period. That's true, but it's not the whole story.

The semicolon also has to separate equal grammatical units—an independent clause from another independent clause, or a dependent clause from another dependent clause, or a phrase from a phrase. The semicolon does not separate unequal units—like an independent clause from a ctepen-dent clause.

In other words, think of the semicolon as a kind of "pivot": one idea is on this side of the semicolon; another idea is on that side of it. And on each side of the pivot point is a similar grammatical unit.

Rules for the semicolon

1. Use a semicolon to join two (or more) complete sentences to show that those sentences are closely related.

• In spring, the blossoms are beautiful on the apple trees; in autumn, the apples are a nuisance on the lawn.

You may wonder how the semicolon is different from a colon or dash, which can also separate two sentences. The difference has to do with the second sentence, the one after the colon, dash, or semicolon. For the colon and dash, the second sentence is usually an example or elaboration; for the semicolon, the second sentence is usually a similar or opposite idea (as in this sentence). If this seems a bit fuzzy, you're right: there aren't clear rights and wrongs.

Now here's another example of a semicolon separating two sentences:

• The rock climber forgot to bring his rope and pitons; however, he remembered to bring the food.

Some people think a word like however should always have a semicolon before it. No—the word however can move from the beginning of the independent clause to the middle or end of it. The semicolon still stays between the independent clauses—thus separating similar grammatical units:

• The rock climber forgot to bring his rope and pitons; he remembered, however, to bring the food.

2. Use a semicolon to separate items in series if any item in the series has commas in it.

Here's a sentence with incorrect punctuation—notice the confusion:

• Confusing: Many stars from the carnival were there: the ringmaster, Harpo and Groucho, the clowns, Feline, the lion tamer, Ursula, the bear, and, fortunately, Zorro, the bear tamer.

Now let's add semicolons—notice how much easier the sentence is to understand:

• Correct: Many stars from the carnival were there: the ringmaster; Harpo and Groucho, the clowns; Feline, the lion tamer; Ursula, the bear; and, fortunately, Zorro, the bear tamer.

But bullets would be better, wouldn't they?

Experiment with these marks and with those you already know how to use: parentheses, question marks, and italicizing for emphasis. The results will be dramatic.


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