When a comma is too little and a period is too much, the semicolon is there to save the day.
The semicolon is the perfect punctuation mark to meet so many of your everyday needs; it’s just so dang handy! Whether you are trying to link two related independent clauses, give a list of elements that contain commas, or just trying to sound sophisticated, the semicolon is the punctuation for you. In general, a semicolon provides a longer pause for the reader than a comma would, but doesn’t bring the reader to a full stop like a period. It can be used to create artful pauses that provide some breathing room and ensure a more pleasurable reading experience.
Still confused? That’s okay. We’ll get through this together; I believe in you, and more importantly, I believe in semicolons. Let’s start with some simple rules:
Use a semicolon to connect two related independent clauses.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I put on that supersuit; I never wanted this kind of responsibility.
This is the most common use for a semicolon. If you’ve got a bunch of broken up independent clauses that are just yearning to be together, patch them up with a semicolon or two. Alternatively, avoid the deadly comma splice by using a semicolon instead of a comma to connect those deceptive short independent clauses:
Don’t do this: The suit gives power, it is also a burden.
Do this instead: The suit gives power; it is also a burden.
Use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses with a transitional phrase or conjunctive adverbs.
I burned down a whole neighborhood last night; at the same time, I did save that kitten.
This is a similar situation to the one above, but in this case, the independent clauses have a transitional phrase or conjunctive adverb between them. Usually, the two independent clauses are not related like they are with Rule #1, so without that transitional phrase/conjunctive adverb, it would be wrong to use a semicolon.
Don’t do this: I spend all my time fighting for justice; I am quite broke.
Do this instead: I spend all my time fighting for justice; consequently, I am quite broke.
Use a semicolon to separate a list containing elements with commas
I saved Ruben, the baker’s son; Daisy, the florist’s daughter; and Alvin, the chipmunk.
If you are trying to list some listings and the listings you are listing contain commas, you can use a semicolon as a “super comma” and help avoid some confusion.
No, really! When the elements in a list contain commas, it can be very confusing as to what is actually being listed. Whenever any item in a list contains a comma, replace the separating commas with semicolons so the reader is able to tell exactly what items are being added to the list.
Don’t do this: There are a few people who tell me I should stop running around in tights: my wife, Cheryl, the mayor, and Ruben.
Do this instead: There are a few people who tell me I should stop running around in tights: my wife, Cheryl; the mayor; and Ruben.
Use a semicolon to separate clauses containing commas
For breakfast, people usually eat cereal, oatmeal, or fruit; but I eat cookies, just because I can.
This can be more of a personal preference. It comes down to how confusing the sentence reads with only commas, and if it is worth it to switch out the comma connecting the two clauses with a semicolon for readability. Often times, it is because semicolons don’t cost any money.
Now you know the in-and-outs of semicolons; do with this knowledge what you will. With great power comes great responsibility, as they say. Which is probably not much power or responsibility, but you might be able to fool a couple people into thinking you are a bit more sophisticated than you really are.