Do you use semicolons? Do you know how?
Good writers often avoid them rather than make a mistake. Some even think semicolons are “old school” or too formal to use in their writing, while others fling ‘em around like wet noodles—some of ‘em stick, some don’t.
But it’s not that hard to get the hang of semicolons. And although you should guard against overuse, semicolons give you opportunities for expression and variety that you’ll want to take advantage of.
And if you’re a creative writer, knowing how to use them is an absolute must. Why not add something new to your writing toolbox?
The advantages of using semicolons
For starters, you won’t have to end a thought when another one comes tumbling right after it; you can legally blend them together. And why fuss with a comma and a coordinating conjunction?* You can just breeze right into the next idea with a teensy pause—represented by the semicolon—to signify a slight shift.
Plus, you’ll have a greater command of the language and be able to fine-tune not just your meaning but also your style. You’re a great writer (or you’re going to be) with great ideas. Why not jazz things up a bit?
Finally, you won’t have to be hesitant around semicolons ever again. No worries. Woo!
* Coordinating conjunctions: and, or, nor, for, so, yet, but
Use semicolons sparingly
Like the m-dashes in the next sentence, reserve semicolons for special effects. In short blog posts or articles—under 500-600 words or so—use no more than one. In longer pieces around 1000 words, feel free to use one, two, or even three semicolons depending on the style of writing and purpose. You can follow a general rule of one semicolon per 500 words, but really, there are no rules concerning frequency other than take it easy.
In the end, the type of punctuation you use (and how often) depends on the rhythm of your writing and how you vary your sentences to achieve a certain effect or express your writer’s voice, among other things.
And how you use semicolons also depends on your purpose and audience as well as your writing style. Someone who writes literary fiction or wants to, just as one example, will probably use semicolons far more often than the typical business, marketing, or parenting blogger. Why?
A literary fiction writer’s audience is accustomed to reading carefully constructed, well-considered prose, and that often includes semicolons. The reader looking for a get-rich-quick Internet scheme or easy ideas for keeping a bouncing baby entertained—not so much.
The two most popular ways to use semicolons
Also known as an independent clause, a complete sentence contains a subject (someone or something) and its corresponding verb a.k.a. predicate verb (what the someone or something does or is). Remember, other verbs might appear in the same sentence, so be careful. You might want to think in terms of a main subject and a main verb.
These examples are all complete sentences. Subjects are green, and verbs as well as helping verbs are orange.
They ate dinner.
The leaf fell.
The alarm will ring in a few minutes.
He jumped out of bed despite feeling sick.
He will be tired.
The wind howled for hours.
I would have sent that letter sooner if I had remembered in time.
Use a semicolon to join two closely related complete sentences.
“Closely related” means the concept or idea in one sentence expands upon the information in the other or states it in a different way. The second complete sentence often provides additional meaning or explanation to the first or explains a consequence. By using a semicolon, you won’t need additional words to explain, you won’t have two potentially choppy sentences, and you’ll be able to create sentence structure variety and rhythm more easily.
Keep in mind that sentences properly joined by a semicolon are often longer than those that only use a coordinating conjunction and a comma or “because” and so on. In fact, if each sentence is very short, a semicolon may be overkill.
Compare the following examples. Each one is punctuated correctly, but which ones sound best? Read out loud if necessary, and pause a little at the semicolons. (The pause reminds me of an ellipsis, which can signify a trailing thought, or filler words like “you know . . .” when someone’s talking.)
- His aunt stays in. She likes her TV shows.
- His aunt stays in; she likes her TV shows.
- His aunt stays in because she likes her TV shows.
- His aunt never goes out of her house in the afternoon. She’s afraid she’ll miss something exciting on her TV shows.
- His aunt never goes out of the house in the afternoon because she’s afraid she’ll miss something exciting on her TV shows.
- His aunt never goes out of her house in the afternoon; she’s afraid she’ll miss something exciting on her TV shows.
Among the shorter sentences, #3 sounds best; each sentence alone is too choppy. Of the longer sentences, #4 sounds like part of a list, and #5 just seems to drone on. But #6 sounds perfect with the semicolon. Context can change things, of course.
Here’s another example:
- He wandered all day. His heart was broken.
- He wandered all day; his heart was broken.
- He wandered all day because his heart was broken.
- He wandered along the beach and inlets all day. The pitiless sun rose and fell on his mangled, bleeding heart.
- He wandered along the beach and inlets all day as the pitiless sun rose and fell on his mangled, bleeding heart.
- He wandered along the beach and inlets all day; the pitiless sun rose and fell on his mangled, bleeding heart.
As in the previous example, a semicolon generally doesn’t work well with short sentences. And short sentences standing alone can sound choppy unless you’re using them for special effects and variation. It all depends on context—in this case both #5 and #6 sound fine—but it’s always good to have a semicolon or two up your sleeve.
It all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve, the rhythm, and how other sentences are varied punctuation-wise
Use a semicolon and a conjunctive adverb or transition word followed by a comma to join closely related, complete sentences.
You see sentences like this every day even if “conjunctive adverb” sounds like an eye infection. These are also called “transitional adverbs” and even conjunctive adjectives depending on the source you consult or article you read.
Conjunctive adverbs include words like however, therefore, moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, and consequently, among others.
Words and phrases like indeed, still, in fact, even so, for example, on the other hand, and in the first place are transitional words and phrases which can be used with a semicolon and a comma.
No matter what you call them, the rules are the same when it comes to semicolons.
A complete sentence followed by a conjunctive adverb and another complete sentence gets a semicolon and a comma.
Check out the following examples. Do you see how the ideas in each complete sentence are related? And do you see the meaning added with the use of the conjunctive adverb or transition?
- My bicycle has been going strong after two years of heavy use; regardless, I’m taking it to the shop next week to have an expert give it a tune-up.
- My friend has kept up with her exercise program for over six months; in fact, she’s running a 10k race next week.
- It seemed like justice had been done when the trial was over; still, I couldn’t help but think that the young man needed help more than he needed punishment.
Using a conjunctive adverb or transition and a semicolon (along with a comma) to join related sentences is a great way to add variety to your writing.
You can also use semicolons to separate items in a series that contain commas or other internal punctuation.
Normally, items in a series are separated only by commas.
- lemons, limes, and grapes
- dogs, cats, and hamsters
- the yellow coat, green pants, and pink turtleneck
When each item, however, is a group of more than one item (with each separated by commas), using semicolons to divide the groups prevents confusion.
The restaurant’s menu included appetizers like Shrimp Fondue, Steamed Artichokes, and an assortment of cheeses; entrées such as Veal Marsala, Shrimp fra Diavolo, and Risotto al Funghi; and delicious desserts such as Tiramisú, Gelato, and Cannoli.
What if you only have one item that’s a group?
The chef served Shrimp Fondue, Steamed Artichokes, and an assortment of cheeses for appetizers, Veal Marsala for dinner, and several delicious desserts.
Depending on the order of things, commas can work just fine, as in the example. But what if the sentence looks like this?
For appetizers we had Shrimp Fondue, Steamed Artichokes, and cheese, Veal Marsala for dinner, and several delicious desserts.
Readers can stumble when they get to “cheese, Veal Marsala.” In that case, use semicolons. A better solution is to reduce the multiple-item group into one single item without commas or build up the others. Just make sure they’re equally weighted.
The chef served shrimp fondue and other delicacies as appetizers, Veal Marsala as the entrée, and a selection of delicious sweets for dessert.
For appetizers we had shrimp fondue and a few other choices, Veal Marsala for dinner, and several delicious desserts.
A blog post, article, or novel would be very boring indeed if all the sentences were short and simple, one after another. You can add variety with different types of sentences and use commas for clarity. But if you know how to use a semicolon, you’ll have many more options, you’ll be able to express thoughts and ideas with more clarity, and you’ll add a special zing to your writing.
Comments? Questions? They’re always welcome. And please share! Everyone should know how to use semicolons!