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Semicolons: How To Use Them, And Why You Should

03/12/2015 09:18 am ET | Updated Mar 12, 2015
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Does the semicolon really need a defense? The punctuation mark has seemingly won more earnest supporters than snide detractors over the years, even as its use has plummeted. In 2012, Ben Dolnick wrote eloquently of his “love story” with semicolons in The New York Times' Draft blog. In 2008, the Guardian tallied up the pro and con factions among well-known writers who had gone on the record regarding semicolons: 11 for, 4 against, 3 undecided. Perhaps not the unanimous support a period might garner (surely we can all agree on something as utilitarian as a period), but still a landslide win for the semicolon.

The real danger for semicolons comes not from the invective of great authors, despite the oft-quoted Kurt Vonnegut jab at the punctuation mark: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Plenty of acclaimed writers use and support the semicolon, Vonnegut aside.

Although I’ve never been encouraged to use semicolons by instructors, I’ve found myself using them more and more over the years, sometimes guiltily deleting them when I realize I’ve peppered them liberally throughout a single paragraph. For some reason it feels self-indulgent, even shameful, but I can’t give them up. Perhaps explaining my own fondness for the semicolon is as simple as revealing that my favorite author is Virginia Woolf and the classic writer I’ve never been able to fully appreciate is Ernest Hemingway. Short, declarative sentences don’t speak to me as a reader in the same way as long, winding, tenuously bound together spools of thought. The semicolon represents nuance, a gray space between an unbroken thought and two entirely separate ones.

Woolf’s profligate employment of semicolons propelled her stream-of-consciousness style, allowing her to pile thought upon thought without unnatural break or studied conjunction. While more adventurous stream-of-consciousness practitioners tended to dispense with unnecessary punctuation (James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, contains fewer than 50 semicolons, many of them in a list), Woolf layered them without restraint, echoing the fluid cadences of conscious thought. Mrs. Dalloway, a slim novel, contains well over 1,000 semicolons, which hold aloft drifting, weightless sentences for impossible lengths. Woolf uses them to juxtapose seemingly contradictory feelings, letting them painfully weigh against each other, or to follow a scrambled thread of thought. Her novels draw much of their brilliance and poetry from the meeting place she finds between ecstasy, mundanity and agony, and her strategy for drawing out that highly human nuance leans heavily on the humble semicolon. What better argument could I make for the beauty and utility of a punctuation mark?

Yet the semicolon has been on the decline since well before Woolf’s day. In 2008, Slate argued that the semicolon fell victim to the telegraph, which encouraged brevity and discouraged frivolous punctuation, pointing to a precipitous decline in semicolon usage in the 19th century. The semicolon lost its foothold long ago and, despite the support of beloved authors and certain journalistic institutions, the punctuation mark has never recovered. In fact, in the age of the Hemingway App, Twitter fiction and other fetishizations of succinct, pared-down prose, the semicolon seems more endangered than ever.

A big part of the semicolon’s problem, of course, lies in its mysterious nature. In day-to-day usage, the semicolon has come to be seen as the gall bladder of punctuation marks: It theoretically serves some sort of purpose, but if it were removed entirely, everything would probably be fine. Most of us have memories of teachers dismissing semicolons and urging us to use periods instead; perhaps we’ve received graded papers with incorrectly or overused semicolons circled in red, or perhaps we never bothered using them, since so few teachers emphasize their value.

Many of us have never learned the proper use of a semicolon, and the underuse of semicolons in American publications compounds the widespread ignorance of its meaning. Is it just a glorified comma? Is it more or less the same as an em dash? Is it a colon that’s crying a little bit? Was it just invented to make winky sadface emoticons?

None of the above! To ensure we can all use semicolons with confidence, we've broken down the magical and wonderful ways you can use semicolons to clear up your lists and spice up your style. Although few of us can pull of Woolf’s generous, rule-stretching use of semicolons, here are a few basic, perfectly allowable ways for you to use semicolons in your own writing:

How to use a semicolon:

To separate items in a list with internal commas
If you ever use semicolons, you likely use them this way. When you’re writing a list with items containing commas, the list items must be separated using semicolons for clarity. Pretty simple, right?

Example: Semicolons allow us to organize lists; vary sentence structure in our writing, which improves the reading experience; express a close relationship between two independent clauses and much more.

To join two clauses in cases where another comma may be confusing
This is related, and more rare; but yes, it’s allowed! If you’re joining together two clauses that would normally be punctuated with a comma, but this is confusing due to earlier commas in the sentence, you can replace the comma with a semicolon. Boom -- clarity!

Example: My favorite punctuation marks are the semicolon, the em dash and the comma; but, if you must know, I'm also quite fond of the interrobang.

To join two independent clauses that are closely related
Now we’re getting to the fun stuff! Sometimes, you have two independent clauses that you could separate with a period or join with a comma and a coordinating conjunction, but neither feels quite right. Maybe you want to indicate that the two sentences are part of the same thought but don’t share the relationship typically indicated by a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or “but.” To be clear, you shouldn’t use a semicolon willy-nilly in place of a period; use it to indicate a continuation of a thought within the sentence, a particularly close link between two independent clauses or a subtle if undefined relationship between them.

Example: I wish I could use semicolons in every sentence; they're practically addictive.

Some clauses start with conjunctive adjectives, but unlike coordinating conjunctions, these should be preceded with a semicolon, not a comma -- for example, use a semicolon (or a period) before “however,” “furthermore” or “nonetheless.”

Example: Many style guides recommend restricting usage of semicolons; however, I find myself using them constantly.

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