Semi-Confusing Semicolons

Many writers avoid semicolons, with the exception of using them to make winking smiley faces.  Is it any wonder?  After all, the thing looks like a colon and a comma got drunk and had a baby.

I wouldn’t be writing about semicolons today, but I have received a couple emails inquiring about them (which was random, but very flattering).  I thought I would take a crack at explaining the usage here for me to reference in the future.

scott bell quote.jpg

Note*  There are more uses for semicolons than what I will cover today, but these examples address the specific questions I was asked.  Semicolons can be confusing enough without me dumping out 1000+ words.

semicolon.pngFor me, it was a long time before I ever understood what the heck a semicolon did.  It seemed every time I saw one used in writing, a period could have worked just as well.  However, the semi-colon does have a use.  Let’s talk about it.

Let’s snag a definition to work from.  The Chicago Manual of Style states, “In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would” (p. 325).

When I read definitions like these it just makes me more confused.  Let’s break it down and explain the parts and pieces.  After all, some of us may be murky about what independent clauses and conjunctions are.

First, an independent clause is just a fancy pants way of saying a sentence.  In a nutshell, this is saying a semicolon connects two sentences together that could both stand on their own two feet.  So yes, you could use a period instead.  But what the period can’t do is make the two sentences join and emphasis one another.  That’s the job of the semicolon.

The definition also mentioned the semicolon could only be used if the two independent clauses (sentences) were not joined by a conjunction.  Conjunctions are just words used to connect sentences together (and, but, or, yet, so, and the list goes on).

example graphic.pngHere is a very basic example of a conjunction.  “My name is Corey, and I write blogs.”  The conjunction, “and,” combines two sentences (My name is Corey.  I write blogs).

If you still aren’t clear on conjunctions, the Grammarly Handbook is a free resource with a huge amount of grammar tips and tools.  Here is a link to their material on conjunctions.

The Elements of Style offers three great examples we can look at to link everything we just talked about together.

Example 1 uses semicolons to combine two sentences and create one thought.

Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.

Example 2 uses a period to break sentences into two separate thoughts.

Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining.  They are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five.  We cannot reach town before dark.

Example 3 uses conjunctions to join the two sentences.

Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining, for they are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark.

grammarThere is a different feeling in each of these examples.  It is especially noticeable if you read the examples aloud.  The semicolon pulls the sentences together, the period splits them with a hard stop, and the conjunction joins them while slowing the pace.

Semicolons also find use when listing a series of items where a comma is used for each item.  Take this sentence for example, “The fantasy genre includes Lord of the Rings, The Dark Elf Trilogy, and Dragonriders of Pern.”  If I wanted to provide an example of a character from each of these books to help the reader recognize the titles, then I could use semicolons.

Example:  The fantasy genre includes Lord of the Rings, with Frodo; The Dark Elf Series, with Drizzt; and Dragonriders of Pern, with F’nor.

Probably the most common error I see regarding semicolons is using them to list items.  For this you would want to unleash the full colon, none of the watered down semi-colon nonsense.

uncle sam grammar.pngExample: Corey thought about all he would eat after posting this blog: pizza, ice cream, homemade ramen, and egg rolls. [A big thank you to Thomas Weaver for finding a mistake in this example and helping me correct it.  Check the comments section to see the blunder in its natural habitat.]

That’s as far as we go today.  Hopefully this helped.  Personally, I rarely use semicolons in my writing.  If I do, I have to stop and think about whether it is proper or not.  When I edit, I typically do a triple-take to make sure it’s correct.  Trust me, I have the pages on semicolons earmarked in my style guides 😉

Did I screw this up?  Do you have a better way of explaining it?  Do you use semicolons very often?  My skin is thicker than an elephants so don’t be afraid to correct my blunders or offer additional insights.  This is a daily blog post after all, and I tend to write them hastily.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

36 responses

    • I’d be humbled if you linked my post. Even in this attempt to solve a punctuation problem for others, I made mistakes in punctuation myself. It was solved, thankfully, by a helpful comment.

      With that being said, I think punctuation is a gigantic issue for many people. The more grammatical juggernauts out there (like you) who tackle it the better.

      Thanks for stopping by and reading today! I will surely spend some time on your blog page in the future.

      Like

  1. Good post, Corey, clear and informative, and one I’m sure many people will find useful.

    I use a lot of semicolons and the even more misunderstood colon: both are extremely useful in creating nuance and subtly graduated connections; furthermore, they have the added benefit to allow the writer much fuller control over prose rhythm than the common period and comma alone. (Did you see what I did there? )

    Seriously, though…

    I think short, declarative prose has its place, but I’m not a fan of it. I particularly dislike Hemingway, and hold that he did more damage to English letters than any author in history. Anyone whose reading–especially early reading–includes classic authors and great stylists from Joyce and Virginia Woolf to John Le Carre ought to have no problem with semilcolons; unfortunately, few people today read widely, and the schools ain’t helping.

    Vonnegut, irreverent scoundrel that he was, didn’t help either when he famously wrote, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

    A purist like myself can only shake his head and sigh. Sic transit gloria mundi.

    Best,
    Dario

    ps: correct comma usage in English–now there’s a topic as complex and vexed as the offside rule in soccer 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hah! The master (you) is weaving the concepts together as if tying his shoes. Thanks for reading and offering this insightful comment. I enjoyed your relentless use of both semicolons and colons in the first paragraph.

      I like a good balance of long and short prose in my personal reading. I did a goofy post on long and short sentences being similar to a samurai’s long and short swords a while back. The point was to help illustrate that both long and short sentences have an important purpose in a writer’s arsenal and neither should be your only weapon.

      For me, if the writer is consistent in their style, I can usually sink into a nice rhythm with them. I would agree that a person would gain a higher appreciation for semicolons if they would read the classics. This is partially why I was so clueless about them when I was younger. During my military instruction, and while in college, many of the instructors I had simply omitted classic works as solid references (or at the very least only used small snippets to illustrate points). They leaned toward current writing. It wasn’t until I began my own period of self-study did I begin to see how the greats used things like colons, semicolons, and other tools with relative ease and great efficacy.

      I’m glad purists like you are still out there fighting the good fight. I hope to develop more strength as a writer, reader, and editor through dedicating time to self-study each day. Maybe someday I’ll even consider myself a purist too. Until then, I’ll just marvel at Latin wielding wizards like you and say, “Some day.” As for commas, that’s a can of worms I don’t want to get into…

      Like

  2. I love this post so much. I only ever used it for the winking smiley, because I was at a loss as to its use. Like you said, looking up the definition just leaves me more confused.

    I love how you break everything down in the normal terminology, then break it even further down into actual sense. Xp

    Great work! ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Corey thought about what he would eat after posting this blog. The list would probably include: pizza, ice cream, homemade ramen, and egg rolls.”

    Actually… that’s not right, either, because you’ve got a verb (include) before the list. If you want a colon before the list, you could shorten the example to, “Corey thought about what he would eat after posting this blog: pizza, ice cream, homemade ramen, and egg roles.”

    (Apologies if I’m not supposed to comment on this sort of thing. I’m new here…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for pointing this mistake out! I will change it and toss a reference in there pointing readers to the comment section and your blog. There is a learning point to be found regarding constructive criticism here (i.e. don’t freak out when an editor offers some good advice).

      One thing I enjoy about blogging is this collaboration we get. It almost allows us to create our own wikipages where the community can help with the content.

      With that being said, I try to avoid posts on grammar and punctuation. With my post-a-day goals, I just don’t get enough time to clearly edit some of my content. Even after reading this post three times or so, I still managed to miss a pretty obvious mistake. Thus, people like you throwing me a bone is very much appreciated. Everyone needs a good editor!

      Thank you so much for reading and helping me improve my content.

      Liked by 1 person

      • (D’oh! I just noticed the typo in my comment. WordPress’ autocorrect hates me; I don’t know why. I suspect it’s because I make fun of the spell check for not recognizing “comma” as a word. That should be “egg rolls.” *shakes head*)

        I’m glad you’re blogging about this sort of topic. I know punctuation (and grammar, and a whole lot of other esoteric topics that fiction authors generally don’t want to bother with if they can avoid ’em), but I don’t always know how to explain it to anyone else. Your explanation of semicolons is something I can point to when I’m asked, because it makes sense and isn’t full of obscure jargon.

        I’m not worried about using semicolons because most people wouldn’t believe I’d attended university anyway. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • *smacks forehead*
        That’s what I get for quickly copy and pasting to save some time. [insert forest for the trees metaphor] The struggle continues. Regardless, thanks for the heads up (I probably wouldn’t have noticed that until someone else pointed it out).

        Professionally, I steer clear of copyediting and line editing and focus on general editing. The reason is I haven’t received enough formal training to consider myself an “expert” just yet. For friends I will do my best to cover all the bases, but for clients (people paying me) I only offer what I’m best at. Perhaps it is a cop-out, but I’m not going to take someones money unless I’m 100 percent certain I can offer them something of value in return.

        Someday I’ll be a multi-dimensional editor of destiny, but for now, I’ll stick to what I’m good at. On this note, I’m really glad you commented today because it let me find your blog page. I will be creeping around on your page more often and sponging up your obvious knowledge. Your writing style and voice are right up my alley.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I look at each clause, and I ask myself how closely they are related. Sometimes they are close; sometimes they aren’t.

    That’s honest a little phrase I have in my mind when deciding to use semicolons. I like then best when they are directly related. I hate the dark; it scares me. Another thing I consider is, “Is the only reason I’m using a period here because there are two independent clauses? “. I see a lot of comma splices in sentences that happen because people don’t want the hard stop of a period, and they don’t know how a semicolon functions. Those are probably the only two reasons I use a semicolon, and I use them sparingly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Some solid advice from a solid author, and molder of journalistic minds. Thanks for sharing your thought process in regards to semicolons.

      As for commas, I’m a comma splicing maniac in my own writing and blogging. It’s something I will have to deal with majorly in revision. For the blog I just let out a heavy sigh and say, “There aren’t enough hours to make everything perfect Corey.”

      Thanks for taking the time to read and share your experience. I know I appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think you explained it quite well. I tend to avoid semi-colons as well. My grammar beef, which I see ALL of the time, is the overuse of commas. As I read others blogs, I am amazed at the sheer length of run-on sentences!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you found something useful here today. I am one of those comma offenders to be sure. In a polished final product it would be different, but here in the blogspace I try not to stress it TOO much. Commas can honestly be just as confusing (maybe more so) as semicolons when you really get into it.

      Thanks for reading and leaving your thought! Happy writing.

      Like

  6. In your example, “My name is Corey, and I write blogs.”, the clauses are kind of independent. Corey is the one also named I. I would write it exactly the same way and use the comma before the conjunction. With two truly independent clauses [sentences], I’d use the semi-colon if I wanted to link they together for the good of whatever I’m writing. It doesn’t happen often though. I think it’s one of those grammar tools that usually sits on the peck board waiting for those special moments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave some thoughts.

      Grammar is the hardest thing for me to explain in clear terms. I even had some help with this post via a keen eye and helpful comment. This is a jungle that requires many machetes – or perhaps a flamethrower.

      Like

  7. This was a great post! When I decided to get serious about writing, I reviewed grammar to make sure I understood everything. Semicolons are one of those annoying things that takes time to understand. I’ve found the best way to learn is by practicing, reading a lot of grammar books and websites.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. hmmm, my hard and fast rule has always been to use it to join two separate and complete but related statements. For example “Their conversation was interrupted by the sounds of a hushed argument; behind them, near the empty fireplace, Ivy was speaking quietly but emphatically to Daphne, who interrupted her….”
    Or in a pinch I throw one in when I would use a comma but the sentence has too many already. It’s all to do with rhythm and flow to me and now I think about it it’s quite hard to explain when I use one and when I don’t…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would agree about it influencing rhythm and flow. I would also agree that it is hard to explain when to use them and when not to (after writing this blog post I know too well).

      Thanks again for reading and sharing your process with everyone.

      Like

  9. When I was teaching the course everybody hates to take their first year of college (Writing 101 or Composition 101, as it’s often dubbed), I used to tell all my students to first master using periods and commas. If they did that well, then I said they could move onto hyphens, emphasis dashes, colons and that lovely bastard of the punctuation family, the semi-colon. It was a bit of a joke, but really, the semi-colon is something that is rarely, if ever, actually needed and for beginning writers I thought that acquiring the ability to write clear and straight-forward prose was a good place to begin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a brilliant bit of advice. Thanks for sharing it. Grammar and punctuation, in my opinion, are two of the biggest things that stop writers from writing. They have a creative idea and a story, but all the rules bog them down and they switch from creative mode into analytical rule mode. Your advice is spot on. You eat an elephant by taking one bite at a time and punctuation is the same way. Start with small bites (preferably the ears) then move to the meatier bits.

      Thanks for sharing a refreshing perspective on the fear of punctuation. Also, thanks for reading and taking the time to write this solid comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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