Grammar Grab Bag: A Semicolon, By Any Other Name


Semicolons are perhaps one of the most misunderstood – and misused – punctuation marks. I attribute this to the fact that in nearly every context, you could use a different punctuation mark without being grammatically incorrect or damaging meaning and readability. Semicolons are primarily stylistic marks. We’ll get into the details, but in most contexts, you could just as easily use a period without bringing down the wrath of the local grammar fanatic.

Semicolons and Independent Clauses

Semicolons are used to join two independent but related clauses, each of which could stand on their own as a sentence. For example, you might say that “The candy drawer is empty; Madison took the last piece.”

You may have noticed that these two clauses are two complete sentences that could stand on their own if we used a period instead of a semicolon. I did tell you that a semicolon was almost entirely a stylistic mark. It is used when the writer wants to call out the relationship between the two clauses or perhaps just add variety to sentence structure. However, they are not used to join two clauses when the second clause begins with a conjunction, such as “and,” “but” or “so.” In these instances, just use a comma.

To test if you are using a semicolon correctly, first substitute a period and make sure you still have two complete sentences. If not, use a different mark to join your clauses. If you do, then make sure that your two clauses are related. If they aren’t related, a period would likely be a better mark to use.

Semicolons and Lists

The other common way to use a semicolon is in complex lists. If you are listing a series of items where each item is several words long or contains a comma within the item itself, you might substitute a semicolon instead of commas to improve readability.

For example, if you were listing off several executives and their titles, you might use semicolons to separate individual executives: Emily, vice president; Christine, executive vice president; and Don, senior vice president. Note that while you would not use a comma before the final “and” normally, you would use a semicolon before the final conjunction in a complex list.

As another example, if you were to list off the descriptions of several press releases, you might use semicolons to separate the individual releases: The one we put out in January about collaboration; the one we released in October about earnings; and the one we put out last month about SDN and NFV.

Think about whether using a semicolon will make it easier to distinguish between different items in the list. If that is the case, then substitute semicolons instead of commas – but be careful to include that final semicolon before the final conjunction.

Semicolons may be a stylistic mark, but they can add a rich subtext to what you have to say. Use them sparingly for maximum effect – but be sure you’re using them in the correct context.

What did you think of today’s grammar lesson? Let us know in the comment section!