Semicolons – misused and misunderstood

Semicolons cry themselves to sleep at night because nobody understands them, writes Kris Spisak in Get a Grip on Your Grammar. This is true, because although semicolons have very few uses as punctuation marks, these uses are misunderstood. This post will clarify when semicolons are used.

The first use of a semicolon is to join two independent clauses into a compound sentence. It is used in either place of a period or in place of a comma and coordinating conjunction that separates two clauses.

In comma use in compound sentences, we see how a comma and coordinating conjunction (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, or So which are represented by the acronym FANBOYS) are used to join independent clauses that are equal in rank or importance.

A comma alone is not strong enough to join them and creates what is called a comma splice because the two independent clauses have been co-joined or spliced together with a just a comma.

Ex: I could see them, but they couldn’t see me.

A semi-colon is strong enough to join two sentences and can also produce a brisker pace.

Ex: I could see them; they couldn’t see me. (from English 3200)

In addition to linking closely related independent clauses, semi-colons can also be used to link independent clauses joined by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases.

Ex (conjunctive adverb): Every kid should have access to a computer; furthermore, access to the Internet should be free.

Ex (transitional phrase): The circus comes as close to being the world in microcosm as anything I know; in a way, it puts all the rest of show business in the shade. ~ E. B. White, “The Ring of Time” (from The Everyday Writer)

Using just a comma with conjunctive adverb or transitional phrases also produces a comma splice.

Semicolons are also used to separate items in a series that contain other punctuation. We see in comma use in a series that the serial comma is generally used to separate items, but when there are other commas and punctuation marks within those items, a semicolon groups the items and makes the sentence clearer and easier to read.

Ex: Classic science fiction sagas are Star Trek, with Mr. Spock; Battlestar Galactica, with its Cylons; and Star Wars, with Hans Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader.

(from The Bedford Handbook)

Another use of semicolons, probably less known, is introducing the phrase “for example” or “for instance” at the end of a complete sentence. In these cases, a dash could also be used:

Ex: Many words imitate sounds; for example, crash, bang, splash. (from English 3200)

Many words imitate sounds—for example, crash, bang, splash.

Finally, a semicolon can also take the place of the word because, which is a subordinating conjunction, not a coordinating conjunction, such as and, but, or or.

Ex: The child fell asleep because she was tired out from playing.

The child fell asleep; she was tired out from playing. (from English 3200)

Let’s end this discussion of semicolon use with a quote from Lewis Thomas” “Notes on Punctuation”:

“The things I like best in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, especially in the Four Quartets*, are the semicolons. You cannot hear them, but they are there, laying out the connections between the images and the ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.” (*Take a look at the first poem in the Quartets here, provided by David Gorman.)

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