How to use a semicolon…

I noticed yesterday that some poor soul on the internet had been directed to my site via the search “how do I use a semicolon”. Presumably Google thought my poem about semicolons contained some jolly good advice. Which it does. But for any future random arrivals, here is a plain text explanation of correct semicolon use.

There are two ways (excluding emoticons) to use a semicolon.

The first is in complex lists. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s a simple list.

My dog likes running, scratching himself and digging holes.

(As an aside, you’ll note I didn’t put the comma before the “and”. That type of comma is called an Oxford comma—some people always use them, others regard them as optional. I personally only use them if the sentence would be confusing otherwise.)

Here is a complex list about the same dog.

My dog likes running, especially after the neighbour’s cat; scratching me, himself and the furniture; and digging holes in my flower garden.

In this example, one or more items in the list contains internal punctuation. If we were to use a comma after “cat” and “furniture”, it would be difficult to figure out where each part of the list ended. The semicolon therefore takes the place of the serial comma.

You can put a colon at the start of the list to flag it’s coming (so, in this case, after “likes”), but it isn’t required unless the list breaks out over several lines. That’s not the sort of thing you’ll be doing in a novel, but you may do it in a minute or academic text.

My dog likes:

* running, especially after the neighbour’s cat;

* scratching me, himself and the furniture; and

* digging holes in my flower garden.

(Bloody dog.)

The other time a semicolon is used is to join two clauses that could otherwise be written as complete sentences (“independent clauses”). You might want to do this if the two ideas are linked in some way—either contrasting or supplementing each other.

I say aluminium; you say aluminum.

My dog has no tail; we call him Stumpy.

Semicolons are awesome; I use them a lot.

If one of the clauses is a fragment, a semicolon is not correct. Likewise, you don’t need a semicolon if the second clause begins with a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, yet, so), even if the clause is otherwise independent. Use a comma instead.

Stumpy smells bad, but we still love him.

I love coffee, so I cried when we ran out.

But (and bear with me here) if the second clause starts with a conjunctive adverb such as however or therefore—or a transitional phrase such as of course—a semicolon should be used before it and a comma after.

(Interestingly, Wikipedia says not to use the comma after a conjunctive adverb if the adverb is only one syllable, like thus. Ok, maybe that’s only interesting to me. Wake up, you!)

Stumpy smells bad; however, we still love him.

I drank all the coffee; of course, she’ll never prove it!

I am allergic to cats; thus I don’t mind when Stumpy chases them away.

Now, I had someone on Twitter (who shall not be named) tell me he’d been told semicolons were a redundant form of punctuation, and that therefore he doesn’t use them. It’s true that, outside of complex lists, there’s nothing a semicolon does that a full stop doesn’t achieve—if all you’re after is a correctly punctuated sentence. But, to my mind, being able to link ideas gives a writer an additional tool to add nuance to their work. Unless you’re writing picture books or instruction manuals, why wouldn’t you embrace that?

And thus endeth the lesson. I hope this makes sense, random Googler, should you ever return.


3 Comments on “How to use a semicolon…”

  1. […] Edit: If you want a proper description of how to use a semicolon, I’ve written one here. […]

  2. When I`m wondering if either coma or full stop I often find a semi colon does the job.

    As for being redundant why Don`t do away with commas as well? Then we can set about full stops. . .

  3. […] a blog post about punctuation. I’ve blogged about dashes (em rules and en rules) before, and also semicolons. Today I want to talk about the dash’s smaller cousin, the hyphen. At work they call me the […]

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