“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons…All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Ironically, my jaded view on the punctuation mark blossomed during every writing workshop at college. So many of my peers added them into their sentences and so many of them—nay, all of them—used the semicolon incorrectly.
Stop using a semicolon I noted on their story.
Except those with high grammatical understanding, of course.
It’s the middle sister of the punctuation marks where the pause is not quite as fast as the wispy comma and not as slow as the serious period.
So the question is this: How slow does your pause need to be in order to use a semicolon correctly?
Well, you’ll have to ask yourself three more questions to see if your writing truly needs a semicolon:
Do You Have 2 Independent Clauses Worth Connecting?
The beauty of the semicolon is that it merges two independent thoughts into one fluid sentence. Here’s an example:
“Jane held her breath as she walked underneath the bridge; she was always doing that sort of thing.”
Because the second clause is closely related to the first, it doesn’t seem fitting to bring the narrative to a full stop as is the role of the period. And a comma is simply inappropriate here because that would be a comma splice.
And we all know comma splices are evil.
This is an example of when the pause between the two thoughts needs to be longer than a comma and shorter than a period. That’s how to use a semicolon correctly.
If you don’t know that the two sentences or independent clauses should be connected by a semicolon, then use a period. That’s always the safest bet.
Do You Have a List Where the Items Also Require Commas?
If you’re listing off places like cities and states, it starts to get confusing when there’s a bunch of commas. That’s where the semicolon can help out, like in this example:
“I’ve worked in the following places: Flagstaff, Arizona; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Columbus, Ohio.”
If I used commas instead of semicolons, the reader (that’s you!) could assume that Arizona and Michigan were also cities. While there is an Arizona City in Arizona and a Michigan City in Indiana, I neither worked in both locations. So using a semicolon in this instance clarifies the meaning of my sentence.
If I wasn’t sure that a semicolon was right for this sentence, I could adjust how I convey the places by dropping the states attached. This eliminates the need for the commas within the listed items and reinstates the need of the comma within the list itself.
Can You Connect Your 2 Independent Clauses with And or But?
Let’s just jump right into an example for this one:
“Bart saw that his favorite band was playing downtown tonight; he wasn’t sure if he should go.”
If your two clauses can be connected by a “but” or an “and,” that means the two independent clauses are closely related to each other. They would have to be, otherwise featuring them in the same sentence would be awkward to read.
When your narrative has too many connecting conjunctions, it’s nice having the semicolon to help break things up grammatically without breaking the flow of your words.
You can always fall back on making it one sentence by using “but” or “and.”
Things to Remember When Using a Semicolon:
- Like a comma or period, there’s no space between the semicolon and the word preceding it. However, like a comma or period, there is one space that follows before the next word.
- The first word following a semicolon is always lowercase (except for proper nouns).
- Use semicolons sparingly! Too many semicolons usually means that your narrative needs some revision.