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How does one correctly use a semicolon? It is probably one of the more difficult punctuation marks to master in my opinion.

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7 Answers 7

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Yes, it is so complicated that you want a clear, concise, and humorous but useful explanation like this:

When dinosaurs agree on something, they often high-five one another; dinosaurs are all about high-fives.

If you'd used a comma in this sentence, it would have resulted in a comma splice. If you'd used a period, you'd lose the connection between the two clauses.

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TheOatmeal came to my mind too when I saw the question –  Midhat Sep 3 '10 at 10:36
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+1 for TheOatmeal :) –  roman m Oct 21 '10 at 22:38
    
+1 for being right. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 16 '11 at 20:53

Simply put, a semicolon connects two complete sentences that are strongly related. By doing so, the length of the pause between the two is shorter as compared to a period.

If you are unsure whether or not to use a semicolon, the safe bet is to avoid it; replace it with a period instead. Bear in mind that you can never exchange a semicolon with a comma or vice versa.

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I believe that semicolons can replace commas in lists when they provide clarity, such as when listing city/state combinations. Example: Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Texas; and Phoenix, Arizona. –  Caleb Thompson Aug 5 '10 at 22:52
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And they can also be used so as to avoid ambiguity, as in: I like blue; green; yellow and black; green and orange; and pink and purple. With commas, that would be a lot more difficult to understand. –  Sarhanis Aug 5 '10 at 23:33
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@Sarhanis: The comma is 100% adequate to disambiguate simple list items (as in the list in your example). See The Oxford Comma - oxforddictionaries.com/page/202 ... Lists whose items contain commas are as rare as hen's teeth, but they can be seperated by colons (but only in this case). –  fred Nov 4 '10 at 19:46

I would advise that you should just learn by reading, especially more thoughtful and observing books, not quick and just-the-facts ones. It is indeed a harder punctuation mark to master and will take a while; soon though it will seem very natural and instinctive where it should come. Do not, I repeat Do not (many at first attempt this), try and force the use of it, or reconstruct perfectly fine sentences in an effort to include it - it will always come out awkward and make it worse.

Simply, as another answer says, it links two sentences, or better, statements. I disagree somewhat, because often it would seem nonsensical to keep them separated by commas; in this case people who don't like to use, or have little experience in, using semicolons tend to just make it a comma. Semicolons are, as you say, quite precise punctuation, and can usually be made into, at the expense of rhythm and cadence, a full-stop or comma. It usually depends on the style, context and purpose of the writing. Often in very factual and fast-paced prose, there is virtually no use of them at all; you just want the facts, one by one: you're not reading for enjoyment or being persuaded, therefore there is little need for rhythm, etcetera. Here, don't try and use one for the sake of using one. In longer, more meditative and thoughtful writing, it is sometimes used nigh on every sentence, eg. in Walden (indeed the full title is 'Walden; or, life in the woods' - a very good book, not just for learning how to use a semicolon). I know some who seem to think that this 'factual' mode of writing is merely modern - fast-paced writing for a fast-paced way of life; the semicolon belongs in the literary domain of the 19th century. I think this is completely untrue - it is vital for expressing a train of thought clearly. The usually sound advice of On Writing Well by William Zinsser is of this opinion and that one should instead 'rely on the period and the dash', but I think it is because he writes mainly nonfiction.

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http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

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That's what the top answer says. –  mmyers Sep 3 '10 at 16:49
    
@mmyers This answer probably came from the merge of this question. –  waiwai933 Sep 3 '10 at 20:40
    
@waiwai933: Probably so. I hadn't noticed any answers on the other one before merging, but there was a pretty short window there. –  mmyers Sep 3 '10 at 21:08

Oddly enough, the semicolon should be used exactly as its appearance suggests - something between a period and a comma; you use it when a period would be too strong and a comma too weak. Read the works of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe to see it used heavily in practice.

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Semicolons are somewhat difficult to work with simply because they're used very rarely. There are two cases when you can more or less always use them. If you wish to join two longer sentences loosely and use the word "therefore," "however," or "indeed" then a semicolon works well.

"The steak at the restaurant there is absolutely the best in town; however, if you like your meat done you almost have to ask for it burnt to a crisp."

"I brought my car to the garage to get new shocks and breaks; indeed, I have needed to do so for quite some time."

The truth about the semicolon, however, is that you can drop it in favor of a period. In writing, then, I find that the only time I ever use a semicolon is when I want to keep two sentences softly linked together for the reader's benefit. It says "these two ideas together are more important than they are apart." In technical writing, I find that I need longer, more detailed sentences, and I need some middle ground between a period and using the common conjunctions "and" or "but"; those can make a sentence come across as too wordy. [Note: Previous sentence is a good example of how I use semicolons.] The common conjunctions may not work at all (e.g., run-on or nearly run-on sentences) if your sentences have multiple phrases and clauses, too. In the end, find I use a semicolon when I can't use a common conjunction and I don't want to use a period.

If you're ever in doubt, though, just make two sentences.

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George Orwell believed the semi-colon could be retired completely, and replaced with either a comma or a period. I might add the long-hyphen as a third alternative, but I am not dogmatic; and surely the semi-colon is sometimes handy--especially if you use the long-hyphen a lot, as I do...

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em- or en- dashes are probably better choices for parentheticals. –  Caleb Thompson Sep 29 at 15:03

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