The inventor of the semicolon most likely didn’t envision emoticons, which use colons, hyphens, parentheses and semicolons to create winking, smiling and frowning faces. Although children and adults alike know what ;) and :-) mean, I’ll bet some are a bit fuzzy on how to use semicolons in sentences.
A semicolon visually combines a period and a comma; as far as utility, it comes between them. A period is an enforcer. It stops you cold. A comma is less severe. It lets you take a quick breath and then continue. When you mix the two together, though, shazam! A semicolon makes you stop and allows you to take a breath at the same time. A semicolon performs two main functions: It joins ideas together, and it allows readers to take a medium-sized pause, especially when commas
are nearby. Let’s look at these three punctuation marks in more detail.
When you want to break the connection between ideas, use a period:
She devoured six donuts in one sitting. She regretted it later.If you want to link the two thoughts, use a semicolon:
She devoured six donuts in one sitting; she regretted it later.So, separate with a period; join with a semicolon. Now, you can’t put a comma between the two “she” sentences; that’s a comma splice. :( You could, however, add a conjunction such as “and” or “but” between the two complete sentences. Then you’re allowed to use a comma:
She devoured six donuts in one sitting, but she regretted it later.You may also add certain words after a semicolon to smooth out the connection between the two sentences you’re joining. Examples are “however,” “indeed” and “on the other hand.” You could, for instance, write this:
She devoured six donuts in one sitting; however, she regretted it later. Two asides on punctuation. First, in the sentence above, note the comma after “however,” which helps with readability. Second, be aware that if a quotation mark and a semicolon appear next to each other, the semicolon must go outside the quotation mark, as here:
She was known around town as “The Donut Devourer”; although this was a legitimate nickname, she preferred to be called Donna.
So how do you know which one to choose: period or semicolon? It’s up to you, the writer. Although semicolons lend an air of formality, try using them once in a while. And remember, a colon and a semicolon are not the same.
One of the functions of a colon is to introduce a list:
She munched on the following kinds of donuts: glazed, jelly, chocolate, powdered, cream puff and cinnamon.Sometimes lists are simple (as the one above), but sometimes lists are more complex. Here, we get to choose between commas and semicolons. Commas are for regular, simple lists:
I invited my aunt, my uncle, and my grandma to see my new pet fish. In this family-filled sentence, we take a short breath after each comma. Note that the comma after “uncle” is optional. Using the last comma in a series—called a serial comma—is a style choice, not a hard and fast rule. If I want to add the names of these family members, though, this list becomes complex, and we have to take two kinds of breaths: short ones with commas and longer ones with semicolons. We can’t stick with commas only; the sentence will become a jumble:
I invited my aunt, Betty, my uncle, Saul, and my grandma, Martha to see my new pet fish.This is confusing—and punctuated atrociously! Let’s clear up this conundrum:
I invited my aunt, Betty; my uncle, Saul; and my grandma, Martha, to see my new pet fish.Notice the last semicolon in this list of somewhat complicated items. Above, I told you that the last comma in a simple series, as in “I like a, b, and c,” is optional. The last semicolon in a complicated series is not optional, however. If you left out the semicolon after “Saul” in the sentence above, you’d end up with another mess:
I invited my aunt, Betty; my uncle, Saul and my grandma, Martha, to see my new pet fish.So remember to put in that last semicolon, even if you don’t put the last comma in a simple series. Your readers will thank you for being clear. They may even send you a donut out of gratitude.
Now for some Criminal Sentences that misuse—or omit—our friend the semicolon. Please fix them and send your rewrites to email@example.com. 1. A mailing can take many forms; letter, postcard, brochure.
2. My cousin, Julie, Bob and my grandpa visited me last week. (Hint: Three people visited me.)
3. Semicolons are used for two main purposes; to join sentences and to eliminate confusion when commas abound.
4. We ate too many donuts, nevertheless we were still able to eat dinner.
5. Her nickname was “Miss Semicolon;” she loved to wink.
1. A mailing can take many forms: letter, postcard and brochure.
2. My cousin, Julie; Bob; and my grandpa visited me last week.
3. Semicolons are used for two main purposes: to join sentences and to eliminate confusion when commas abound.
4. We ate too many donuts; nevertheless, we were still able to eat dinner.
5. Her nickname was “Miss Semicolon”; she loved to wink.