A semicolon is an odd punctuation mark–a period on top of a comma looks odd. Compare it to a colon–one comma stacked on top of another appears orderly and balanced. So can the semicolon be ignored? When should you use it?
You should use a semicolon when writing in semi-formal or formal settings. Otherwise, you are using a formal punctuation mark, and the semicolon calls attention to itself in informal writing.
When Should I Use a Semicolon?
The use of a semi-colon should be reserved for formal or semi-formal writing:
- White papers
- Professional journals
- Academic writing
In settings such as those, readers expect thorough, nuanced writing to express complex ideas. Readers of a white paper on bitcoin marketing trends want more than a series of bullet points about the possible growth areas; instead, these readers expect a sophisticated analysis that charts trends, identifies potential risks, and makes suggestions about how to move forward.
However, the average person planning on buying a new laptop wants to know about performance, cost, and specs like weight and battery life. And if they want a comparison between several models, a list or table is more helpful.
Audience and Purpose
Here’s the previous sentence again:
The average person planning on buying a new laptop, however, wants to know about performance, cost, and specs like weight and battery life; in addition, if they want a comparison between several models, a list or table is more helpful.
So what’s the difference? In the above sentence everything is combined in one sentence, connecting them with a semi-colon and conjunctive adverb. The resulting sentence seems too dense for this article.
And it doesn’t have the informative but not formal tone for an informative article.
The audience for a product review is interested in the product, not sophisticated sentences. The tone needs to be casual.
The rules for semi-colons are straightforward if you know, intuitively or otherwise, these terms (or the concepts):
- Independent clause
- Conjunctive adverbs
- Items of a series
Let’s go through each one.
An independent clause is a sentence.
So why not simply call it a sentence? You could, but then what would you call a group of words that are not a sentence? A non-sentence? And how would you distinguish between a group of words that have a subject and verb but are not a sentence, and a group of words that do not have both subject and verb?
So the term “independent clause” is used to distinguish it from a dependent clause and phrase.
But for our purposes, we can say an independent clause is a sentence–a group of words that can stand alone.
These are a specialized class of adverbs whose purpose is to connect ideas. However, like many words or phrases, they can take on several roles:
- For example, a conjunctive adverb can serve as a transition (as for example just did).
- A conjunctive adverb can allow us to connect two independent clauses together; for example, in this sentence the conjunctive adverb for example is both a transition and conjunction.
- And then a conjunctive adverb can, for example, change the rhythm of a sentence.
Items of a Series
When you connect three or more similar ideas, you have what is known as items of a series. Most of us remember this rule from school: For the class party, we want cookies, soda, and ice cream.
When to Use Semicolons
The two primary rules for semicolons:
Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses (sentences).
The sentences can be joined without a conjunction; this is an example.
You can also connect them with a conjunctive adverb; therefore, I am linking these two sentences with a conjunctive adverb.
Use a semicolon to separate items of a series when the items have commas in them:
For the class party we want cookies, cake, and pizza; soda, juice, and chocolate milk; and ice cream.
Sounds like a tasty class party. Recess anyone?
Digging Deeper–The History of Semicolons
There is enough history to this punctuation mark that Cecelia Watson penned a delightful book, Semicolon. It traces the punctuation mark’s usage to 1494, an attempt by the publisher of De Aetna to invent a mark that would create a longer pause than a comma but not as long as a colon.
If you are exploring this fascinating punctuation mark further, start with her article in Publisher’s Weekly. The post What is a Conjunctive Adverb explores a class of adverbs that has many uses.
You can also read a post that details how semicolon rules have changed.
And if you haven’t heard about semicolons tattoos, check them out.
By the way, if you’re wondering if starting a sentence with and is legit, I answer that in this post.
Bottom Line–When to Use a Semicolon
You can use semicolons in formal and semi-formal writing. But in informal writing use them sparingly.
Leave questions or comments below.