Don’t Fear the Semicolon
I was in a crowded college library pulsing with the sibilant hum of students at work. Behind me I heard a door slam, a tumultuous shuffling of feet, and then silence. When I turned around there was no one there but Semicolon. I dropped my book, raised my trembling hands, and through suddenly dry lips said, “Look, Mister. I…I ain’t lookin’ for no trouble.”
Face it; we are all terrified of the semicolon. Most of us pretend it isn’t even real. Ever since old Mrs. Crustenhammer scolded us for misusing one in 7th grade, we have learned just to live without it. And life has not been perceptibly less rich as a result. We can all get along fine without semicolons, after all.
Because this is true, I always find great joy in a student paper that contains a courageous and correct use of semicolon.
Honestly, semicolons are really not that hard to use appropriately. They are typically used in one of two ways:
1. To join independent clauses. An independent clause is a group of words that can stand alone as a sentence. There are times when two complete thoughts are so clearly connected that you’d like to keep them together. Use a semicolon to do this:
Eggs are versatile things; you can juggle them, snuggle them, collect them, or cook them.
Notice that the clauses on either side of the semicolon could each be its own sentence. If you used a mere comma here, you’d end up with a run-on sentence called a comma splice. You could put a period there (and capitalize you). That would be okay grammatically, but you would lose the obvious connection between the two ideas. A semicolon works best in a situation like this, and that’s why you should have it in your toolbox.
Now, you never need a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, but, or). If you combine independent clauses with a simple conjunction, you need just a comma:
The zucchini was large, but Evan was sure he could eat it in one bite.
If you use one of several words or compounds called conjunctive adverbs (or conads for short), you do need a semicolon. It goes before the conad, and a comma should follow it. The most common conads are however, moreover, and therefore.
Vladimir prefers pasty pale skin; therefore, he wore coveralls to the beach party.
2. To help join items in a complex list. The other, less common way to use a semicolon is in a list where the individual items include commas already — cities and their states for example:
My yodeling concert tour took me through Decatur, Georgia; Edison, New Jersey; and Butte, Montana.
Without the semicolons, it would look like the items in the list are Decatur, Georgia, Edison, New Jersey, Butte, and Montana. This use of semicolons works for other kinds of complex lists too:
My phobias include apiphobia, which is the fear of bees; coulrophobia, the fear of clowns; and homiclophobia, the fear of fog.
That’s all there is to it, so buck up. Don’t give in to semicolophobia.
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