When Should I Use a Semicolon?

You should use a semicolon as little as possible.

Here’s the reason for that. A semi-colon is semi-formal; a writer should only use it in semi-formal and formal settings.

And if that sentence sounds a little off to you, you?re not alone.  It doesn’t sound right to me either.

When Should I Use a Semicolon?

When should I Use a Semicolon
Photo by Connor Pope on Unsplash

In all seriousness, the use of a semi-colon should be reserved for formal or semi-formal writing:

  • White papers
  • Professional journals
  • Academic writing

In settings such as those, readers expect thorough, nuanced writing to express complex ideas.  Readers of a white paper on bitcoin marketing trends want more than a series of bullet points about the possible growth areas; instead, these readers expect a sophisticated analysis that charts trends, identifies potential risks, and makes suggestions about how to move forward.

However, the average person planning on buying a new laptop wants to know about performance, cost, and specs like weight and battery life.  And if they want a comparison between several models, a list or table is more helpful.

Audience and Purpose

Let?s try that last sentence again:

The average person planning on buying a new laptop, however, wants to know about performance, cost, and specs like weight and battery life; in addition, if they want a comparison between several models, a list or table is more helpful.

So what?s the difference?  In the above sentence I put all the ideas together into one sentence, connecting them with a semi-colon and conjunctive adverb.   For my taste, the sentence seems too dense for this article.

And it doesn?t fit in with the tone I am aiming for?informative but not formal.

My purpose in this post is to inform the readers about semi-colon, and my audience is bloggers.  And I want my tone to be casual professional.  So if a semi-colon appears, it?s to make a point about it.

By the way, if you’re wondering if starting a sentence with and is legit, I answer that in this post.

Semicolon Rules

The rules for semi-colons are straightforward, if you know, intuitively or otherwise, these terms (or the concepts):

  • Independent clause
  • Conjunctive adverbs
  • Items of a series

Let’s go through each one.

Independent Clause

An independent clause is a sentence. 

So why not simply call it a sentence?  I suppose you could, but then what would you call a group of words that are not a sentence?  A non-sentence?  And how would you distinguish between a group of words that have a subject and verb but are not a sentence, and a group of words that do not have both subject and verb?

So the term “independent clause” is used to distinguish it from a dependent clause and phrase.

But for our purposes, we can say an independent clause is a sentence–a group of words that can stand alone.

Conjunctive adverbs

These are a specialized class of adverbs whose purpose is to connect ideas.  However, like many words or phrases, they can take on several roles:

  • For example, a conjunctive adverb can serve as a transition (as for example just did).
  • A conjunctive adverb can allow us to connect two independent clauses together; for example, in this sentence the conjunctive adverb for example is both a transition and conjunction.
  • And then a conjunctive adverb can, for example, change the rhythm of a sentence.

I love conjunctive adverbs.  However, that is for a future post.

When to Use Semicolons in Items of a Series

When you connect three or more similar ideas, you have what is known as items of a series.  Most of us remember this rule from school:  For the class party, we want cookies, soda, and ice cream.

Let us not have the argument about whether the comma should come before and right now!

The two primary rules for semicolons:

  1.  Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses (sentences). 

The sentences can be joined without a conjunction; this is an example. 

You can also connect them with a conjunctive adverb; therefore, I am linking these two sentences with a conjunctive adverb.

  • Use a semicolon to separate items of a series when the items have commas in them:

For the class party we want cookies, cake, and pizza; soda, juice, and chocolate milk; and ice cream.

Sounds like a tasty class party.  Recess anyone?

Digging Deeper?The History of Semicolons

There is enough history to this punctuation mark that Cecelia Watson penned a delightful book, Semicolon.  It traces the punctuation mark’s usage to 1494, an attempt by the publisher of De Aetna to invent a mark that would create a longer pause than a comma but not as long as a colon.

If you are exploring this fascinating punctuation mark further, start with her article in Publisher’s Weekly.

Bottom Line–When to Use a Semicolon

I am not advocating that you never use a semicolon.  However, unless you are writing in a formal setting, use them sparingly, if at all.  Do your best to hide it; your readers will appreciate it. 

Yes, that last sentence was on purpose; I just couldn’t resist.

I’ll stop now before I do it again.

Leave questions or comments below.  If you want to discuss editing or proofreading, shoot me an email.

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