Semicolons Are Your Friends: A Quick Guide on How to Use Them

As a proofreader, I come upon semicolon issues in almost every piece of work I read. They are often seen as difficult and are frequently mis-used instead of commas or colons, or left out completely; some people are reluctant to use them for anything other than winking emoticons.  I remembering taking a while to grasp their uses when I was taught. But why do people struggle with them so? Perhaps they just aren’t taught well at school (stick that in your baccalaureate, Gove). What ever the reason, there are two simple rules that anyone can learn: 

1.  Semicolons are used to mark a break in a sentence, usually where both halves of the sentence could stand as sentences in their own right. You use a semicolon instead of a full stop to indicate that the points are closely linked.  This could mean that the second half explains or expands on the first, but semicolons should also be used when the two factors are directly contrasted. 

‘He loved the video of a kitten playing the piano on YouTube;  she preferred recordings of Glee-themed flash mobs.’

It would also be technically correct in this instance to use a full stop; the relationship between the two is more neatly expressed using a semicolon.

Another example: if I were to write out the lyrics to David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’, it would look like this: 

‘You shoot me down, but I won’t fall; I am titanium.’ 

You could use a full stop in between, but a semicolon nicely demonstrates the causality between the two assertions.

2. Semicolons can also be used to separate items in a list where they consist of more than one word. The list should be introduced with a colon and the items separated by semicolons.

‘He enjoyed a variety of other videos: the panda falling out of a hammock; squirrels spinning like whirligigs on bird-feeders or washing lines; that dog that does the lambada; and anything featuring Benedict Cumberbatch on a day off.’  

That’s it; there are just two uses. You can do it!

Have a go at punctuating these: 

‘All passengers have been informed that they must not carry sharp objects that random spot-checks can be expected that longer than usual delays are possible’

‘She couldn’t dance in her favourite ballroom it was being renovated’

Let me know how you get on in the comments! 

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8 Comments

Filed under Proofreading, Writing Advice

8 responses to “Semicolons Are Your Friends: A Quick Guide on How to Use Them

  1. Sarah

    Very helpful. Thank you, Eve!

    Like

  2. Nicely articulated post on the fear rearing “;”.

    Question: do you think that, aside from using ‘;’ only to link two closely connected sentences, it’s wise to consider the flow and pace of what you’re writing as well? Cause I reckon that sometimes it’s best to use the old ; if you’re writing for academic purposes. But when writing creatively I tend to opt for the period instead. Not to say that I shun it completely when doing creative stuff, I just think that it, ye olde semi, can really impose the pace of your writing if you’re not careful, or, instead I should say, if you’ve a desired speed but aren’t aware to how a ; might be skewing that speed.

    Sorry for the lack of coherency in this comment, it’s late and it’s exam time; brain equals fuzzled.

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    • Thanks! I think you’re right. I definitely depends on what you’re writing; non-fiction does lend itself to semicolon use. Full stops are fantastic for creating pace and drama in fiction. In creative writing, I would use the semicolon mostly for parallel phrasing, contrasts and to imply causality between two assertions. Your post was perfectly coherent, good luck with your exams!

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  3. I knew there were differences between the way we in the U.S. punctuated and the way the rest of the world did, but I didn’t know it extended to semicolons. Thanks for the info!

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  4. Eve,

    I was taught that semicolons must be used to separate items in a non-vertical list preceded by a colon. I was doing some editing and found a consistency in all articles, using commas to separate list items preceded by a colon, and was correcting them as I went along. Given how many errors existed/the consistency of the error, I went on line to find the rule in a reliable source, as I wanted to provide a reference for my changes. Imagine my surprise, finding commas being used to separate the items following the colon in every grammar reference. Yours is the first evidence I’ve found this rule ever existed. Are you familiar with the rule change, or when it changed? If it changed, I will have to go with it, but I a person who is very uncomfortable when ‘proper’ grammar is changed, based on ‘common’ usage. Is that the case here?

    Thank you,
    Christine

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    • Hi Christine,

      I use Oxford standard text books on grammar and they indicate that items in a list can be separated by semicolons, but only if they have some length and/or complexity. A list of single items should have commas rather than semicolons.

      I haven’t been aware of any changes, though now that you’ve mentioned it I’m intrigued! I’ll keep an eye out.

      Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry I can’t answer in more detail.

      Thanks,

      Eve

      Like

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