Tag Archives: semicolons

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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