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The Mixed-Up Semicolon

March 7, 2018

 

Ah, the semicolon. What is it even? Half-comma, half-period? Never has there been a more mixed-up punctuation mark. Use it wrong, and your writing makes no sense. But if you know how to use it correctly, a semicolon can be a powerful tool.

 

How to Use It

How do you even use a semicolon? Like a comma? Like a period?

 

The answer is YES.

 

Depending on the situation, semicolons can behave much like a comma or a period (but not both at the same time).

 

 

Use a Semicolon like a Comma in Complex Lists

Semicolons can take the place of commas in complex lists, especially when one or more of the items in the list includes commas to set off additional information. Otherwise, without the semicolon, the sentence could get confusing.

 

For example, try to make sense of this sentence without semicolons:

 

Blame for the lion’s escape from the zoo fell on Mr. Shepherd, the zookeeper, Mrs. Heart, the veterinarian, and the peacock, tiger, and zebra.

 

See how confusing that is? Is Mr. Shepherd the zookeeper, or did blame fall on both Mr. Shepherd and the zookeeper? Same with Mrs. Heart—she could be either the zookeeper or the veterinarian—or neither.

 

Now let’s try it with semicolons to break up the items of the list:

 

Blame for the lion’s escape from the zoo fell on Mr. Shepherd, the zookeeper; Mrs. Heart, the veterinarian; and the peacock, tiger, and zebra.

 

Sometimes it might be tempting to use semicolons when individual items in a list are several words long, but this usually isn’t necessary. The sentence below is just fine with commas, for example:

 

After finishing the exam, the student threw her pencil in the air, ran through the hallways, and danced in the sun.

 

Use a Semicolon like a Period to Connect Two Closely Related Independent Clauses

Okay, I know when I started this grammar hacks series, I promised I wouldn’t get all rule-y on you. And I’m going to keep that promise. But I do have to introduce the concept of dependent and independent clauses in order for this explanation of semicolons to make any sense.

 

But I’ll make these definitions as painless as possible.

 

A clause is simply a group of words that includes both a subject (usually) and a predicate. The subject tells us who is doing an action, and the predicate tells us what that action is. So “if it [subject] snows [predicate]” is a clause. So is “we [subject] will sled [predicate].”

 

Notice that a clause isn’t necessarily a complete sentence, but it can be. That’s where the difference between independent and dependent clauses comes in:

 

An independent clause can stand on its own as a complete sentence—thus the name independent. So in the example above, “We will sled” is an independent clause.

 

A dependent clause, on the other hand, is not a complete sentence, so it can’t stand on its own—it’s dependent on being paired with at least one independent clause. So above, “If it snows” is a dependent clause. If you simply said, “if it snows," people would be left waiting for the rest of your thought, wondering, “If it snows, then what?”

 

Remember, I said above that a semicolon connects two independent clauses. It can never connect a dependent clause and an independent clause. Nor can it connect two dependent clauses.

 

To check if you’re using semicolons right, stick a period in their place. If the two clauses could each stand as sentences, you’re doing it right. If not, you need to rewrite or use different punctuation. Let’s check out some examples.

 

DO: Connect Two Independent Clauses

She couldn’t sleep; the pea under the mattress kept her up all night. {CHECK: She couldn’t sleep. The pea under the mattress kept her up all night.}

 

The whole situation was unfair; she was being punished for her hard work. {CHECK: The whole situation was unfair. She was being punished for her hard work.}

 

Notice that neither of these examples uses a conjunction, or joining word (and, but, or). That’s because conjunctions don’t go with semicolons. If you want to use a conjunction, then you’ll need a comma instead, like this: The whole situation was unfair, and she was being punished for her hard work. Notice the slightly different feel this gives the sentence.

 

DON’T: Connect a Dependent and Independent Clause

If we go to Florida; we will go to the beach. {CHECK: If we go to Florida. We will go to the beach. Nope, can’t do that; the first clause isn’t a sentence. See what I did there?}

 

DON'T: Connect Two Dependent Clauses

In the dark; when it rained, we splashed in puddles. {CHECK: Okay, this one has three clauses: in the dark, when it rained, and we splashed in puddles. The first two are dependent; the last is independent. But none of them need—or should have—a semicolon. Instead, it should be: In the dark, when it rained, we splashed in puddles, though I would rewrite this whole sentence to make it flow better. Challenge: How would you rewrite this to preserve the ideas in all three clauses?}

 

However, Therefore, Instead, Etc.

The same concept applies when using words like “however,” “therefore,” or “instead” to connect thoughts with a semicolon.

 

DO

We wanted to go to Disney World; however, it was closed because of the storm. {CHECK: We wanted to go to Disney World. However, it was closed because of the storm.}

 

DON’T

The real test; however, is running a marathon. {CHECK: The real test. However, is running a marathon. Neither of these are sentences on their own. Instead, punctuate this with commas: The real test, however, is running a marathon.}

 

Why Semicolons

At this point, you may be wondering, “Why even bother with semicolons? Isn’t it easier to just use periods?” Well, sure. And it’s perfectly fine to use periods. But sometimes you want to show a close connection between two ideas—and a semicolon can show that connection better than periods. That doesn’t mean I would advise riddling your writing with semicolons. These half-comma-half-periods stand out, so using just a few can go a long way. Give it a try; you might just find semicolons are your new favorite punctuation mark.

 

Need Help?

Have any questions about using semicolons? What trips you up about them? Let me know in the comments. And if you’re worried about colons—the semicolon’s better-known, if just as misused, cousin—I’ll address that in a future post. Sign up to receive these grammar tips right to your inbox here.

 

And if you’d like help combing through your manuscript for anything from punctuation errors to big-picture issues, check out my proofreading and editorial services. Or contact me for more information.

 

 

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