Semicolons

Semicolons

A semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark used:
  • In complex lists.
  • To give a smooth transition into the next sentence.
  • Before a conjunction (e.g., and, or, but) that joins two sentences with lots of commas. (This is rare.)

Examples of Semicolons in Complex Lists

Here's a simple list.
  • Lord Loxley
  • Lady Loxley
  • Master Loxley
When a simple list is written out in full, the list items are separated with commas.
  • The dinner guests will be Lord Loxley, Lady Loxley and Master Loxley.
Now look at this list.
  • Lord Loxley, aged 91
  • Lady Loxley, aged 41
  • Master Loxley, aged 42
If we used commas to separate these list items, the list could get quite confusing. To avoid this confusion, semicolons can be used to outrank the commas in list items.
  • The dinner guests will be Lord Loxley, aged 91; Lady Loxley, aged 41; and Master Loxley, aged 42.
Not all list items have to have commas to justify using semicolons. Only one does.
  • The dinner guests will be Lord Loxley, aged 91; Lady Loxley; and Master Loxley.
Here are some more examples:
  • Brian, the officer in charge; Mark, the chef; and Dexter, my dog.
  • The master, aged 81 (82 next week); the servant; and the cook.
  • (Note how you can use brackets to add more information to a list item.)

Examples of Semicolons Giving a Smooth Transition into the Next Sentence

Most sentences start with a capital letter and end with a full stop. However, if you want a smoother transition between your sentences, the full stop can be replaced by a semicolon.
  • Never pick a fight with an ugly person. They've got nothing to lose.
  • Never pick a fight with an ugly person; they've got nothing to lose.
  • (A semicolon gives a smoother transition between the two sentences. Clearly, we have only one sentence now, so describing this as two sentences might be helpful to understand how semicolons work, but it's actually wrong. We now have two independent clauses, which are clauses that can stand alone as sentences. For the rest of this entry though, I'm going to use the term sentence not independent clause because I think it's helpful to think of the sentences as they were before we started playing around with semicolons.)
Often, when merging two sentences into one, the second sentence will start with a bridging phrase (or a conjunctive adverb as it's called). Common ones are However, Consequently, and Therefore. You can use a semicolon before a one of these bridges to create a smoother transition than a full stop.
  • Vacation used to be a luxury. However, it has become a necessity.
  • Vacation used to be a luxury; however, it has become a necessity.

Examples of Semicolons Used before a Conjunction Joining Two Sentences

Often two sentences are merged into one using a conjunction (e.g., and, or, but).
  • Lee loves pies. He loves cakes.
  • Lee loves pies, and he loves cakes.
  • (When a conjunction (here, and) is used to join two sentences, it is preceded by a comma.)
When the sentences themselves contain commas, you can outrank those commas by using a semicolon before the conjunction.
  • With a fridge full of cheese-and-onion pies, Lee obviously loves pies; but he prefers, from what I have seen, Eccles cakes.Why Should I Care about Semicolons? Proofreaders will tell you that semicolons almost never survive their edit. For the most part, a proofreader will remove a semicolon because it has been used incorrectly, but it's not uncommon for a semicolon to be removed because the alternative is better. For example, the best way to present a complicated list is as bullet points, and the best way to end a sentence is with a full stop. This is food for thought:
    • Once you know how to use semicolons, don't.
    Now, that advice is probably a little strong, but, in fairness, it's only a little strong. You should try to resist using semicolons between sentences. If you use too many, you'll probably annoy your readers, and you'll certainly diminish the smoothing effect.

    Think of the semicolon as an ornament that you show off only on special occasions. In other words, use a semicolon to showcase your skills when you can't stand a full-stop splitting your "Siamese" sentences.

    Here are three scenarios when you might consider your two sentences to be "Siamese" sentences (not a recognised grammar term, btw) that you can't bear to separate with a full stop.

    (1) Consider a semicolon if your two sentences feel like cause and effect.

    If you could merge your two sentences into one with a word like because or as (called subordinating conjunctions), then consider a semicolon.
    • Never pick a fight with an ugly person; they've got nothing to lose.
    • (Never pick a fight with an ugly person because they've got nothing to lose.)
    • I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes. (Playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay)

    (2) Consider a semicolon if your two sentences have similar structures and deliberate repetition.

    • You don't pay taxes; they take taxes. (Comedian Chris Rock)
    • Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open. (Author Stephen King)

    (3) Consider a semicolon if your two sentences could be merged with a comma and a conjunction, e.g., and, or, but, for, so (especially but, for and so).

    • Go not to the elves for counsel; they will say both no and yes.
    • (The original quotation from author JRR Tolkien says: "Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.")
    • I have changed my mind and changed the trimmings of my cap this morning; they are now such as you suggested. (Author Jane Austen) (Here, the two sentences could be merged with a comma and and or so.)
    Here are three other key issues related to semicolons.

    (Issue 1) You can merge two sentences into one with a semicolon but not a comma.

    By far the most common mistake I encounter is the comma fault, which is type of run-on error (see the entry on run-on errors) caused by ending a sentence with a comma and then writing another sentence. Therefore, lots of writers feel – probably unwittingly – that a full stop is too much of a speedbump for their closely related sentences.

    It's a very common mistake.
    • The noblest of dogs is the hot dog, it feeds the hand that bites it. [wrong]
    • Don't steal, the government hates competition. [wrong]
    • (In these examples, the comma could be replaced by a full stop or a semicolon.)
    It's particularly common with however.
    • Vacation used to be a luxury, however, it has become a necessity. [wrong]
    • (Here, the comma needs to replaced with a full stop (and a capital H on however) or a semicolon.)
    I would say this is the point that surprises most writers. It's probably worth saying again…and in bold.

    You can’t use a comma before however when it bridges two sentences (i.e., when it's used as a conjunctive adverb).

    There's more about however in the entries on run-on sentences and conjunctive adverbs. When you've written a sentence, you can't put a comma and then write another sentence. You must be disciplined on this point. I wonder what proportion of writers would have used a comma instead of a semicolon (or a full stop) if transcribing this quotation.
    • You have to wait for your mind to catch up with whatever it is it’s working on; then you can write a novel. (Author James M. Cain)

    (Issue 2) If the space allows, use bullet points.

    As an alternative to bullet points, lists featuring semicolons are useful for saving space. They're not particularly useful for imparting information because, while list items containing commas stand out more clearly when semicolons are used, they're nowhere near as clear as with bullets. If the space allows, use bullet points. (Don't worry. You'll get to showcase your skills with semicolons in lists another time. Clarity trumps showing off.)

    (Issue 3) Don't confuse a semicolon with a colon.

    You can't use a semicolon after an introduction. That's what a colon (:) is for.
    • This weekend, I'm going to fester under a quilt and watch the following; (1) Jaws, (2) The Princess Bride and (3) Shawshank Redemption. [wrong]
    • (This should be a colon.)
    You can discover more about the colon by looking up the colon entry.

    Key Points

    • If you have two sentences that you can't bear to be separated by a full stop, you can unite them using a semicolon.
    • If you have two sentences that you can't bear to be separated by a full stop and you unite them using a comma, you've made a common mistake.
    • If you use however as a bridge between two sentences, you can't use a comma before however. (No, really, you can't.)
    • Using semicolons to separate list items that contain commas is good for saving space and for showing off, but, let's face it, bullet points are clearer.
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