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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

21 May 2008

Uses of the semicolon

A friend recently sent me a New York Times article that spent twenty paragraphs celebrating the correct use of the semicolon in an ad in a subway car.

Clearly, the semicolon has fallen on hard times.

Yet this punctuation mark has much to offer the writer: improved clarity, a pause between clauses shorter than a period, and variety in sentence style, length, rhythm, and formality. This post describes three proper uses of the semicolon.

1. To denote a wink in the emoticon ;-) (apparently now the most common use)

2. To prevent the dreaded comma splice. A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses (that is, a set of words that contain a subject and a verb and express a complete thought) are jammed together with a comma. For example:

  • Do not meow at the writer, she has already fed you lunch. Danger, Will Robinson! Comma splice! Abort mission!
  • Do not meow at the writer. She has already fed you lunch. Correct!
  • Do not meow at the writer; she has already fed you lunch. Also correct!
  • Do not meow at the writer, because she has already fed you lunch. Correct as well!

Notice that the semicolon is less abrupt than the period but more abrupt than the conjunction. The semicolon is also more formal than either. Your choice between the three correct versions depends on the sentences around it, your audience, and your personal preference and style.

3. To make lists clear. Commas usually separate items in a list. But sometimes, the items themselves contain commas, potentially confusing the reader. In these cases, semicolons replace commas between the list items.

For example, take the sentence:

I went to the park with my dog, Harry, my cat, Ron, my sister, Hermione, and Professor Dumbledore.
How many accompanied me to the park? As written, seven individuals did. But what if Harry is the name of my dog? Semicolons are needed. The sentences below show how replacing the commas with semicolons clarifies the list:

  • I went to the park with my dog, Harry; my cat, Ron; my sister, Hermione; and Professor Dumbledore. (four individuals)
  • I went to the park with my dog; Harry; my cat, Ron; my sister, Hermione; and Professor Dumbledore. (five individuals)
  • I went to the park with my dog; Harry; my cat; Ron; my sister, Hermione; and Professor Dumbledore. (six individuals)

If a sentence clunks along or calls attention to itself when you add semicolons between list items, it’s best to rewrite it. Possible rewrites of the above sentence, depending on the knowledge of your reader, include:

  • I went to the park with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Professor Dumbledore.
  • I went to the park with Hermione, Professor Dumbledore, and my pets, Harry and Ron.
  • My sister, Hermione, went to the park with Professor Dumbledore, Harry, Ron, and me. Harry and Ron are my dog and cat.
Sometimes, a list item can contain commas yet be perfectly clear, so no semicolons are needed. Here is an example:

Yet this punctuation mark has much to offer the writer: improved clarity, a pause between clauses shorter than a period, and variety in sentence style, length, rhythm, and formality.
The reason this list does not need semicolons is that the words “period, and” signal that the last item of the list follows. The remaining commas in the sentence, therefore, do not confuse.


Lana Gramlich said...

Thanks for posting this. I appreciate the semicolon & feel it needs to be put to more use. Poor, neglected semicolon!

steve said...

Kurt Vonnegut, in "A Man Without A County," wrote, "Never use a semicolon." I'm a contrary sort; I've used semicolons in my WIP, though sparingly. The punctuation marks I probably overuse are dashes and parentheses.

I appreciate these grammar posts--they're a good reminder for me. The previous sentence presents a question: I could have used a semicolon, but the dash seemed a better option. I don't know whether there's a hard-and-fast rule here Maybe you've covered the dash already.

Thanks again for your grammar posts.

Shauna Roberts said...

LANA, you were right; you definitely are getting sappy. ;-)

STEVE, the trend nowadays in popular fiction is not to use semicolons.(They are still common—and necessary—in scientific writing because the sentences are longer and more complex.) I go through my fiction manuscripts at the end of writing and change most semicolons to periods, even though it sounds choppy to me.

Ah, the em-dash (— or --)! Such a lovely and versatile punctuation mark because you can use it in place of a colon, a semicolon, or a comma or just because you feel like adding some breathing space.

I have no objection to how you used it in your post—but then, I used to work at a magazine where we used em-dashes with abandon. Every article had several, and when I wore my copyeditor hat (it was a short-staffed magazine, and many of us filled several roles), I'd often have to take some out. I've noticed that several alumni of that magazine—including me—still pepper our text with em-dashes.

Lisa said...

Hi, I'm Lisa and I'm an em-dash-holic. Oh, I suppose it started years ago when I got hooked on another form of punctuation. It started with occasional use, but then I realized my use of ellipses was out of control. I love the semi-colon and I find it useful in business communication, but alas, the fiction world seems to have it in for the poor semi-colon. I have bookmarked this post (along with your other grammar and punctuation posts). Thank you!

Rae Ann Parker said...

Thanks for this post, Shauna. I rarely use the semicolon, but would like to do a better job of including it correctly. Maybe this would make a good writing challenge.

Travis Erwin said...

Thanks for the info. I'm weak in grammar, so I can always use a refresher.

Charles Gramlich said...

I like to use semicolons at times in action writing, because it ties two movements or actions closer together than when separated by commas.

I especially appreciate the "Semicolons in lists" section here because I've struggled with that myself. Gonna bookmark this for reference.

Sphinx Ink said...

Good info, Shauna. Being a lawyer, I probably use semicolons more frequently than most other types writers. Nowadays, however, the trend in legal writing is to simplify--shorter words, briefer sentences, etc. The semicolon is falling into disfavor in my profession, too.

Steph said...

Ugh, the dreaded comma splice. I've gotten so tired of explaining that one to new writers. Perhaps I'll just refer them to this post and let you do it for me! Ha!

By the way, I found your blog on and since you're obviously into writing, I wanted to let you know about a new e-zine that me and a few writer friends are putting together.

It's called The Oddville Press.

We're still ironing out the kinks in the website, but it's coming along. If you're interested, you should check us out--or better yet, submit something!

I've bookmarked your blog and will definitely be checking in from time to time to see what other goodies you have posted.

Thanks a bunch!

Shauna Roberts said...

LISA, unlike other addictions, em-dash-holicism can be treated with gradual weaning. You don't need to go cold turkey or eschew em-dashes forever.

RAE ANN, TRAVIS, and CHARLES, glad you found the information useful.

SPHINX INK, that's interesting that even lawyers are cutting back on semicolons. The government has made a big deal in recent years about simplifying documents so the people who need to read them can understand them, and they have gone in for shorter words and briefer sentences. But that sometimes results in things being harder to understand rather than easier—complex concepts are left undefined, for example, because they cannot be defined in short, simple sentences containing easy words.

STEPH, glad you stopped by for a visit and found something you can use with your new writers! Thanks for letting me and my readers know about your new e-zine.

Steve Malley said...

Hi, I'm Steve and let me just start by saying I don't think I have a problem; my friends dragged me here.

I started out small: just a little casual comma use. You know, nothing major... just a few modifiers to get you through the paragraph.

Sure, it got a little bit out of control. I blame Joyce Oates: that chick can really blast through the commas. I thought I could handle my commas, but trying to keep up with her landed me in the Trauma Unit!

Next thing I knew, I was hanging with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Man, those guys throw semi-colons around like there's no tomorrow. I guess when you've been dead a hundred years, the idea of tomorrow is... different.

And yeah, I guess I picked up a few bad habits hanging on the corner: from the first time Batman crawled out of the rubble saying, "Must-- Defuse-- Doomsday Device!" I was into the em-dash. In a big way.

James Burke got me onto the colon. It's got everything punctuation needs: smooth, mellow pacing; a sleek, eyes-open design; heck, it even mixes well with other punctuation.

That doesn't mean I have a problem. Does it?

Shauna Roberts said...

Steve, my friend, you don't have a problem: Punctuation marks, after all, are the spice of writing; don't you agree? In fact, why would God—or whatever deity you believe in—have created so many of them if he/she/it/other didn't mean for us to use them abundantly, extravagantly, and enthusiastically, as I have done here?

Steve Malley said...

then why did they lock me up in this place and take away ALL my punctuation even the commas and periods and do you know how hard it is to ask a question when they won't even let you hold one measly question mark

Shauna Roberts said...

STEVE, don't tell anyone I gave these to you, but here's a stash for you: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " " — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ( ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) )