Ode to the semicolon
The inventor of the semicolon most likely didn’t envision emoticons, which use colons, hyphens, parentheses and semicolons to create winking, smiling and frowning faces. Although children and adults alike know what ;) and :-) mean, I’ll bet some are a bit fuzzy on how to actually use real semicolons in real sentences.
Professor Semicolon gave writers a slightly fancy punctuation mark. You do have to admit it’s a lovely little thing. Visually, it combines a period and a comma; as far as utility, it comes between them. Semicolons perform two main functions: they join ideas together, and they allow readers to take a medium-sized pause, especially when commas are nearby.
A period is an enforcer. It stops you cold. A comma is less severe. It lets you take a quick breath and then continue. When you mix the two together, though, shazam! A semicolon makes you stop and allows you to take a breath at the same time. Let’s look at these three punctuation marks in more detail. When you want to break the connection between ideas, use a period:
She devoured six donuts in one sitting. She regretted it later.
If you want to link the two thoughts, use a semicolon:
She devoured six donuts in one sitting; she regretted it later.
So, separate with a period; join with a semicolon. Now, you can’t put a comma between the two “she” sentences; that’s a comma splice. :( You could, however, add a conjunction such as “and” or “but” between the two complete sentences. Then you’re allowed to use a comma:
She devoured six donuts in one sitting, but she regretted it later.
You may also add certain words after a semicolon to smooth out the connection between the two sentences you’re joining. Examples are “however,” “indeed” and “on the other hand.” You could, for instance, write this:
She devoured six donuts in one sitting; however, she regretted it later.
Interlude to eat a donut or two. ;0
While we munch, two asides on punctuation. First, note the comma after “however” in the sentence above. It’s not mandatory, but I recommend one to help with readability. Second, be aware that if a quotation mark and a semicolon appear next to each other, the semicolon must go outside the quotation mark, as here:
She was known around town as “The Donut Devourer”; although this was a legitimate nickname, she preferred to be called Donna.
So how do you know which one to choose: period or semicolon? It’s up to you, the writer. Although semicolons lend an air of formality, try using them once in a while. And remember, a colon and a semicolon are not the same. No, of course they’re not. A colon indicates that both eyes of the emoticon are open. :) A semicolon indicates a wink. ;) Now for the real information you’ve been waiting for. A colon often introduces a list:
She munched on the following kinds of donuts: glazed, jelly, chocolate, powdered, cream puff and cinnamon.
Now it’s time to delve into simple and complex lists and their accompanying short and long pauses. Here, we get to choose between commas and semicolons. Commas are for regular, simple lists:
I invited my aunt, my uncle, and my grandma to see my new pet fish.
In this family-filled sentence, we take a short breath after each comma. Note that the comma after “uncle” is optional. Using the last comma in a series—called a serial comma—is a style choice, not a hard and fast rule. Read more here. (Add link to previous article.) If I want to add the names of these family members, though, this list becomes complex and we have to take two kinds of breaths: short ones with commas and longer ones with semicolons. We can’t stick with commas only; the sentence will become a jumble:
I invited my aunt, Betty, my uncle, Saul, and my grandma, Martha to see my new pet fish.
This is confusing—and punctuated atrociously! Let’s clear up this conundrum:
I invited my aunt, Betty; my uncle, Saul; and my grandma, Martha, to see my new pet fish.
Notice the last semicolon in this list of somewhat complicated items. Above, I told you that the last comma in a simple series, as in “I like a, b, and c,” is optional. The last semicolon in a complicated series is not optional, however. If you left out the semicolon after “Saul” in the sentence above, you’d end up with another mess:
I invited my aunt, Betty; my uncle, Saul and my grandma, Martha, to see my new pet fish.
So remember to put in that last semicolon, even if you don’t put the last comma in a simple series. Your readers will thank you for being clear. They may even send you a donut out of gratitude.
Now for some Criminal Sentences that misuse—or omit—our loyal friend the semicolon. Please fix them and send your rewrites to email@example.com.
Criminal Sentence 1: A mailing can take many forms; letter, postcard, brochure.
Criminal Sentence 2: My cousin, Julie, Bob and my grandpa visited me last week. (Three people visited me.)
Criminal Sentence 3; Semicolons are used for two main purposes; to join sentences and to eliminate confusion when commas abound. (Look closely at this one.)
Criminal Sentence 4: We ate too many donuts, nevertheless we were still able to eat dinner.
Criminal Sentence 5: Her nickname was “Miss Semicolon;” she loved to wink.
Criminal Sentence 1: A mailing can take many forms: letter, postcard and brochure.
Criminal Sentence 2: My cousin, Julie; Bob; and my grandpa visited me last week.
Criminal Sentence 3: Semicolons are used for two main purposes: to join sentences and to eliminate confusion when commas abound.
Criminal Sentence 4: We ate too many donuts; nevertheless, we were still able to eat dinner.
Criminal Sentence 5: Her nickname was “Miss Semicolon”; she loved to wink.
Ask Me a Question
If you have a writing, grammar, style or punctuation question, send an e-mail message to curiouscase at sign hotmail dot com.
Add Your Own Criminal Sentence!
If you find a particularly terrible sentence somewhere, post it for all to see (go here and put it in the Comments section).