The Misunderstood Semicolon: Stop or Pause? Joined or Not?

Ann Baker is the manager of EDP (Editorial, Design, and Production) and it has taken her more than twenty years of professional copyediting to overcome her own personal fear of the semi-colon.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the semicolon as “a punctuation mark used chiefly in a coordinating function between major sentence elements (as independent clauses of a compound sentence).” The Copyeditor’s Handbook  explains that sometimes a semicolon serves as a “weak period” that joins independent clauses more closely together than a period would, and at other times it functions as a “strong comma” that separates syntactical elements more definitively than a comma would. Editorial nerd alert! Somehow none of these descriptions reveal the rarefied air in which the semicolon apparently resides. Perhaps it’s the subjective nature of the semicolon that scares people away from using it. A period is pretty definitive: it says STOP HERE. An exclamation point says TAKE NOTE. But the semicolon says . . . what? It can say SLOW DOWN or it can say HERE’S THE OTHER SHOE or it can say THE LIST UP AHEAD IS LONG OR COMPLICATED. In reality, for most people the semicolon often just leads to questions: Are these independent clauses of a compound sentence? Exactly what is an independent clause? What are syntactical elements? A compound sentence? Help!

Back in the day, every kid learned parts of speech and how to diagram sentences. Then along came Speech Class in the 1970s and Strunk and White started turning in their graves. Now most writers solve the problem of when to use the semicolon properly by not using it at all. People, this is no solution. Here’s a brief list of some useful ways to use the semicolon:

to separate independent (that is, complete) clauses in a compound sentence: “He came home; he ate some pizza; he went to bed and had cheese monster nightmares.”

to precede the adverb (uh oh, more jargon) when independent clauses are joined by an adverb: “The newest research is essential to the argument presented; nevertheless, the entirety of the research is valuable.”

to act as the “neutral” choice for connecting independent clauses: “The past is not dead; it’s not even past.”

to separate items in a series, especially when the individual items are long or contain commas: “Tracy Crow is the author of An Unlawful Order; Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine; and Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and  Families, World War II to Present.”

As The Chicago Manual of Style says, the use of punctuation is meant to “promote ease of reading by clarifying relationships within and between sentences.” So even if you are confused, scared, or intimidated by the lowly semicolon, give it a chance in your writing. It has a function; if it’s doing its job it will be invisible.

-Ann Baker