32

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

36

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.

  • What about if you had used a dash? – Dog Lover Jul 31 '17 at 22:12
  • Thanks to your answer, it helps me propose a theory: semicolon is a mood-switcher. It switches your "learning mood" to "exciting mood" and vice versa. – Ooker Mar 9 '18 at 6:55
12

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.

  • 18
    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
3

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.

  • semicolons are a way to avoid awkward conjunctions or create appositives at sentence level. I agree, however, with your observations. – Lambie Jul 16 '18 at 15:45
2

Semicolons as signals of calibrated pauses

The semicolon flourished during an era when many authorities on punctuation argued that the comma, the semicolon, the colon, and the period existed primarily to indicate the length of various pauses embedded in writing. According to this theory of punctuation, each of the four marks was assigned a specific pause length representing a multiple of the length of a comma pause. Daniel Bellamy, "The Compendious British Grammarian: Or, an Easy Introduction to the Study of the English Tongue," included in John Marchant, A New Complete English Dictionary, second edition (1760) lays out this theory:

Of Sentences both single and compound are formed Periods, which as they cannot consist of less than two Members; so they should not have more than four; for a Dissertation, where the Periods are too long, are attended not only with great Difficulty to the Person who delivers them; but with Confusion and Reluctance to those who hear them: And for that Reason, it seldom meets with Favour or Applause.

As the Members, therefore, of a compleat Period are four; so they are distinguished by four several Marks; which are commonly called Points, or Stops, that is to say, the Comma, marked thus (,); the Semicolon, thus (;); the Colon, thus (:); and the Period, Full-point, or Stop, marked thus (.): and the Reason that these Distinctions are thus made, is this; because no whole Period is to be pronounced in one breath, but requires more or less Pauses, as the Nature of the Subject requires.

The first Mark, or Comma, is used, when we make so small a Pause, as whilst only we can tell one, and is made use of, for the most part, in order to distinguish particular Names and Things; as the Names of the four most holy Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.—The four Seasons of the Year, viz. Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter.—The twelve Months, as, January, February, March, &c.—And the three Divisions of Virtue; namely, the human, social, and divine, &c.

The second Mark, or Semicolon, is made use of to denote a Pause whilst we can tell two [comma-length pauses], and is most frequent, next to the Comma.—This is affixed to such Parts of a Period, as have one, or more Commas in them, and contain only a Part of the Declaration of the Subject. As, in the following Period; If they be tempted, they resist; if molested, they suffer it patiently; if praised, they humble themselves; and attribute it to the Almighty.

The third Mark, or Colon, makes three times the Pause of a Comma; and is made use of to such Parts of a Sentence or Period only, wherein the Sense, or Assertion, is perfectly finished. As for Example; In the Beginning, God created the Heavens, and the Earth: And the Earth was without Form, and void: And Darkness was upon the Face of the Deep.

And here, the Reader may observe, that the Subject of the Period differs, where the two Colons are regularly placed.

A Full-point, or Stop, is placed nowhere but at the End of a Period; that is to say, when the whole Declaration upon any particular Topic, whether long or short, is perfectly finished.

A.B., in a lengthy and no doubt learned letter to The Gentleman's Magazine (November 1736) takes the matter a step farther. After criticizing the inadequacy of English punctuation to represent the highly nuanced pauses that appear in Hebrew texts, A.B. argues for supplementing the four standard English points with three additional ones to increase the array of representable pauses:

But in as much as the four sorts of Punctums or Points of Sense used in Europe, are not commensurate to those of the Hebrew Code, I have invented three more, viz. a Point placed before the Comma thus {.,} to denote a half Comma, or short Comma : and before the Semi-colon thus {.;} a short Semi-colon or long Comma, (viz. 3 times the value of {.,}:) And before the Colon thus {.:} a short Colon or long Semi-colon; viz. 6 times the Value of {.,} : And then the English Comma represents twice the Value of {.,} the Semi-colon 4 times, and the Colon 8 times the same Value, and the Period is a Period, which makes in all seven different Punctuations of Sense:—Note, in Hebrew Verse, that the Musick and the Sense always stop together.

Interestingly, A.B. doesn't advocate introducing a long colon or short period (which, by his notation would presumably have been marked as ..) for pauses that fall midway between a colon pause and a period pause. Indeed, in the excerpt quoted above, he uses the the colon dash (:—), which (as noted in my answer to Semicolon followed by a dash;—What is it?) timing theorists read as signaling a prolonged colon pause, just as they read the comma dash (,—) and the semicolon dash (;—) as signaling prolongations of the standard comma pause and semicolon pause, respectively. It thus appears that two of A.B.'s three punctuation innovations were already represented by existing notation (.; = ,— and .: = ;—), the exception being his baseline half comma (.,).


Semicolons as hierarchical signals of periodicity

A very different analysis appears in "An Essay on Punctuation," in The Edinburgh Magazine, and Literary Miscellany (October 1824) volume 6 (1825), which assesses the contemporaneous status of the semicolon without referring to pauses even once:

We come now to speak of the semi-colon, which signifies properly a half-member. (Gr. κωλον, membrum.) This is a very fashionable point. It is not unfrequently substituted for the comma, generally for the colon, and sometimes even for the period. In the first and last instances, its abuse is most gross: as to the second, it is almost always very pardonable, since it must be allowed that their separate uses are indistinct and dubious. Generally speaking, however, it may be said, that the semi-colon is to be used when something from the preceding clause of the sentence is understood in the subsequent; and the colon, when nothing is actually understood, but there exists so strong a connection betwixt the clauses, that the force and meaning of the latter depend on, or are deduced from, the former. I will illustrate this remark by an example. Dr. Johnson told George III. "that for those who spoke worse of kings than they deserved, he could find no excuse ; but that he could more easily conceive how some might speak better of them than they deserved, without any ill intention : for, as kings had much in their power to give, those who were favoured by them would frequently, from gratitude, exaggerate their praises ; and as this proceeded from a good motive, it was certainly excusable, as far as error could be excusable." The first member of this sentence extends to "any ill intention ;" the divisions on each side of the semi-colon are half-members. This is all right, and according to definition. My rule, also, is here exemplified : for, in the second half-member of the first member, the word kings is understood in the them ; but, in the first half-member of the second member, after the colon, nothing is actually understood, the word kings being expressly repeated. Still observe, that there is so strong a connection (as my rule states) between the clauses, that the force and meaning of the latter member depend on, or are deduced from, the former.

Clearly, the anonymous author of the Edinburgh Review article was trying to apply a structural logic, rather than a timing logic, to the use of semicolons. But the structural theory of semicolon use goes back to the sixteenth century, which is very nearly the beginning of semicolons. M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1992):

The use of the new mark [the semicolon, in a book published in Italy in 1494] helps to clarify the sense of the passage by contributing to the establishment of a hierarchy of marks: the double punctus separates the cola, the new semicolon mark separates the half members of the colon, the new semi-circular comma-mark (which was to replace the virgula suspensiva in printed texts) separates the commata, and parentheses isolate the parenthesis within a semi-colon.

This hierarchical approach to understanding the place of semicolons in the greater scheme of punctuation remain central to semicolon use today.

And yet Parkes suggests elsewhere in Pause and Effect that the origin of the semicolon was in answer to a need for greater precision in signaling pauses:

The semi-colon has the properties of a compromise, and seems to have been a deliberate invention designed to fulfil a particular need. Aldus Manutius the younger explains it in his Interpungendi ratio (Venice, 1566) by means of an example:

.Publico, priuata; sacra, profana; tua, aliena. in which example, it appears satisfactorily, that the semi-circle on its own {i.e. the modern comma} is not sufficient, and that the mark, which is transcribed with a double point thus: slows up the sententia too much. ...

The semi-colon is thus seen as performing a function between those of the other two marks; it is composed of elements drawn from each of them, deriving the high point from the one and the semi-circle from the other.


Semicolons in the modern age

Today, the frequency of semicolon use seems to be far lower than it was a century ago. I take this phenomenon to be a natural consequence of two major factors: the dwindling number of situations in which style guides deem semicolons suitable, and the dramatic shortening of ideal sentence length in published writing.

Words into Type, third edition (1974) identifies four categories of semicolon use, reflecting the uses then current:

Coordinate clauses without a conjunction. ... [First example:] The intention is excellent; the method is self-destructive.

Coordinate clauses with a conjunction. ... [First example:] I saw no reason for moving; therefore I stayed still.

Series. [First example:] These were located in Newbury, Connecticut; Cambridge, Saugus, Watertown, and Rowley, Massachusetts; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and Lincoln, Rhode Island.

Resolutions. [Example:] Whereas in virtue of Article 3, paragraph 3, of the Covenant, the Assembly ...; and whereas, according to Part IV, section III, of the report ...; the assembly decides ...

The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2011) ignores the "resolutions" situation, but affirms the other three that Words into Type identifies. Missing from both books' treatment of semicolons is any discussion of their use with members, periods, or other elements primarily in order to extend a sentence to a truly imposing and dignified length.

The Associated Press Stylebook (2002), on the other hand, cites only two suitable situations for semicolon use: to clarify a series that requires subordinate punctuation (in the form of commas) within primary series elements, and to link independent clauses. But although AP accepts the use of semicolons in situations where independent clauses are not joined by coordinating conjunctions (especially when the combined sentence is not especially long), it does not broadly endorse the use of semicolons with independent clauses that do include coordinating conjunctions:

TO LINK INDEPENDENT CLAUSES: Use semicolon when a coordinating conjunction such as and, but or for is not present: The package was due last week; it arrived today.

If a coordinating conjunction is present, use a semicolon before it only if extensive punctuation also is required in one or more of the individual clauses: They pulled their boats from the water, sandbagged the retaining walls and boarded up the windows; but even with these precautions, the island was hard-hit by the hurricane.

Unless a particular literary effect is desired, however, the better approach is to break the independent clauses into separate sentences.

This last remark reflects the newspaper preference for short sentences—a preferences that has grown unmistakably stronger over the past thirty years, as writers, editors, and perhaps even readers have fallen in love with the punchiness of brevity.

The presence or absence of that style preference, above all, plays a decisive role in determining a publisher's highly subjective answer to the question of how to correctly use a semicolon.

0

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.

0

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.

0

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...

  • em- or en- dashes are probably better choices for parentheticals. – Caleb Thompson Sep 29 '14 at 15:03
0

What I learn from How to use a semicolon - The Oatmeal comic is that besides being a super comma when listing items, the semicolon is a mood-switcher. It switches your "learning mood" to "exciting mood", or "explaining mood" to "summary mood" and vice versa.

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

Godzilla is a misunderstood creature; beneath his raging desire to set people on fire & eat them lies a gentle giant who just wants to cuddle

Edward Tanguay's answer helps me see this.

Let's test this idea:

Semicolon is a mood-switcher; it switches your "learning mood" to "exciting mood" and vice versa.

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