By virtue of separating two closely related but separate thoughts, the semi-colon can generally be replaced by a full stop. I don't mean in the beauty and sound of it, but just grammatically. Can you think of any examples where the full stop, if used, changes the meaning or sense from what the semi-colon would provide? Again, I don't mean in terms of poetic license or what would make for better writing. I just mean in terms of meaning of the 2 thoughts.

Of course, if you believe that my first line itself is contentious, discuss it. But if you do get my drift, then think up some sentences please.

  • The semicolon can be used in situations where a full stop cannot. See here – Armen Ծիրունյան Feb 11 '12 at 14:25
  • The question Armen links to provides a serviceable answer to this question. Voting to close as a dupe. – Robusto Feb 11 '12 at 15:13
  • I can't come up with an example, but it seems like it might be possible if the second sentence uses a pronoun whose antecedent might differ based on the "closeness" of the preceding sentence. – wfaulk Feb 11 '12 at 15:14
  • I think it's clear that he means a semicolon when used in the same place as a full-stop. – wfaulk Feb 11 '12 at 15:15
  • @wfaulk: Either words mean something or they don't. The OP asked for "Any examples of where a full-stop can't replace a semi-colon [sic]." Armen linked to one, and one is enough. – Robusto Feb 11 '12 at 15:30

The semicolon is indistinguishable from a full stop in speech, i.e, language. Hence its use is purely stylistic, applicable to the technology of writing, not language. And certainly not grammar. In writing a semicolon is a handy piece of artifice that can be made to serve a writer's purpose, like any other tool.

One of the purposes a writer may have is distinguishing nested lists that would be easy to understand by intonation and rhythm in speech, by representing certain comma intonations with a semicolon, as in the article that Armen posted. But mostly they're used the way Akin suggests in the question.

As Lewis Thomas put it,

I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer.

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  • Can you support the claim that the semicolon is indistinguishable from a full stop in speech? I read the quotation with different intonation at semicolons. The pitch contour falls less. Another example here: The lecture was canceled [high pitch on both syllables of "canceled", indicating continuation]; the speaker was ill. versus The lecture was can↘celed. [high pitch on first syllable of "canceled", but declining pitch on the second syllable, indicating the end of the first thought] The speaker was ill. – MetaEd Feb 13 '12 at 15:25
  • Some people may well claim to distinguish them in the speech of others. Some may claim to distinguish them consistently in their own speech. I couldn't say what their evidence is like. The null hypothesis has to be that punctuation marks are inaudible when read, unless there is well-refereed and -tested evidence to the contrary. There are many authorities who don't even accept the intonation curve of the comma. Let alone the semicolon. – John Lawler Feb 13 '12 at 18:33

Claims in US patent applications (and therefore, in issued patents) may only have one period at the end of the claim. Semicolons in patent claims cannot be replaced by periods.

While some would argue this rule should be repealed, it currently stands and is unlikely to change over concern that courts and experts practicing in the field [of patent law] might not recognize more readable constructions as valid.

Source: Manual of Patent Examination and Procedure (MPEP) Section 608.01(m): "Each claim begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. Periods may not be used elsewhere in the claims except for abbreviations. See Fressola v.Manbeck, 36 USPQ2d 1211 (D.D.C. 1995)."

The ACM also requires keywords to be separated by semicolons, but that has more to do with the possibility of nested lists.

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