Why use a semicolon?
The semicolon is probably one of the most controversial symbols on the keyboard. But how can punctuation that simply separates two ideas in a sentence be such a sensitive issue? Most people understand that it creates more separation between thoughts than a comma, but less separation than a period. However, the rules for using it are a little more complicated, and that’s why there is a gray area here. Today, the semicolon can be used to create more defined lists and join sentences, if it’s used correctly.
1.1 Creating Defined Lists
Semicolons are commonly used to separate lists, specifically lists with commas already in them. Let’s see what happens without semicolons:
Jennifer ordered a wide, elegant TV, four outdated, unplayable DVDs, and a computer.
Without semicolons, the list items “four outdated” and “elegant TV” look like separate list items, which is not what was intended. By using semicolons, we can use commas within our list items:
Jennifer ordered a wide, elegant TV; four outdated, unplayable DVDs; and a computer.
Notice how commas are integrated into the sentence, but each item is still separated by a semicolon.
Today, we often use the semicolon to separate tagged items in a list on the computer. For example, when tagging images, photographers often use the semicolon to separate tags so that commas can be incorporated into each one.
Joining Separate Sentences
1.2 Independent Clauses
It is important to note that a semicolon can be used to join two independent clauses, that is two separate sentences. In this example,
Dan was; according to his friends, very late.
the semicolon is used incorrectly. This is because everything before and after the semicolon (“Dan was” and “according to his friends, very late”) are sentence fragments. In this example, a semicolon is simply not needed; the sentence should read, “Dan was, according to his friends, very late.”
1.3 One Semicolon Per Sentence
It is also important to remember that only two sentences can be combined. For example,
Sarah ran in a frenzy to get to class; in ten minutes, she devoured her breakfast; she ran across campus at record-breaking speeds; but, she arrived only one minute late.
This run-on sentence incorporates too many semicolons. It can be fixed by removing some of them and replacing them with periods.
Sarah ran in a frenzy to get to class. In ten minutes, she devoured her breakfast. She ran across campus at record-breaking speeds; but, she arrived only one minute late.
1.4 Semicolons Bridge Ideas
The key to effectively joining separate sentences with semicolons is to make sure that the sentences have the same idea. For example,
John was very prepared for his interview; he spoke eloquently and confidently to the interviewer.
Speaking eloquently and confidently is connected to the idea of John being prepared for his interview. Therefore, the use of a semicolon is logical because it represents a natural break in speech that connects two related ideas together. However, this is where a lot of confusion arises among the use of a semicolon. Therefore, it is imperative that you use them correctly in order to avoid confusing your reader.
Why so much gossip over semicolons?
Almost every use of a semicolon can be replaced with commas or periods without affecting the writing drastically. Therefore, the correct use of a semicolon is unclear to many people, and this creates a source of controversy. For example, the semicolon in the following sentence could just as effectively be replaced by a period:
Jen left for the park; she brought her dog Fido.
Jen left for the park. She brought her dog Fido.
Opponents of semicolons also believe that they can also lead to unnecessarily lengthy sentences, even if they are correctly used. For example,
Kathleen skipped through the store, grabbing every item on every shelf; her shopping cart was so full that she had to make multiple trips home.
While the use of the semicolon is not grammatically incorrect, the sentence is too long and should be separated into two sentences.
1.5 Use Them Sparingly
When incorporating semicolons into your work, keep in mind their rules (above) and your audience. Semicolons can be useful in connecting your ideas in an eloquent way. However, if they are used incorrectly, your writing may be perceived as very “unprofessional”. Furthermore, if your audience is unclear as to whether your use of a semicolon was effective, your writing may also be perceived differently. If in doubt, just use a period.