The semicolon is peculiar.
On the page, it looks like some strange fusion of comma and period. That’s how it’s used in spoken conversation, too: a semicolon provides a longer pause than a comma, but slightly less than the period’s “full stop.”
The dual nature of this punctuation mark is also evident in its function. The semicolon is one of the least versatile of the punctuation symbols: it can be used only in two ways.
The Primary Function: a Soft Period
As we have discussed in an earlier article, a semicolon can join two simple sentences—also known as independent clauses—to create a new, longer sentence. In this usage, the semicolon replaces the period that would end the first simple sentence, and the word immediately following the semicolon becomes lower case unless it’s a proper noun.
The semicolon works best to join sentences if there is a logical, meaningful relationship between each of the original independent clauses. Causal connections generally work best.
Consider the following sentence: The rain beat mercilessly against the castle walls; Lucy stared out the window, knowing she would never fall in love again. Because there’s no subject matter in common between the two halves of the sentence, it’s a weak candidate for joining by semicolon. A better application is shown in this example: The patient arrived at the trauma center at 8:02 p.m.; Dr. Jacobi ordered preparations for immediate surgery. Here, the topical relationship between the two parts makes a semicolon joining appropriate.
Note, also, that a semicolon can only be used to join two independent clauses. If one of the parts is actually a dependent clause, the semicolon will not work; a comma usually must be used instead. Here’s an example of bad usage: Because he was a southpaw; Ronnie was often mocked by the other members of the “Right is Right” Club. Don’t make errors like this.
The Other Semicolon: a Firmer Comma
The second (and less common) function of the semicolon is to assist commas in keeping complicated lists in order. The semicolon steps in when some elements of the list themselves contain commas. Semicolons establish rigid barriers between items in the list.
Consider the following example:
My eccentric mother, who liked to pretend she was the Queen, invited a throng of celebrities to my fifth birthday party, including Neil Diamond, the famous singer, Ethel Barrymore, who was long deceased, Mrs. Birdsong, my nanny, Oprah Winfrey, Her Serene Highness Princess Reuss, the Countess of Plauen, and several cast members from the latest stage production of Starlight Express.
Can you read that and figure out who’s who? Unlikely. For instance, it’s unclear whether the writer’s nanny is named Mrs. Birdsong, Oprah Winfrey, or someone else altogether. But see how the crafty addition of semicolons can bring clarity to confusion:
My eccentric mother, who liked to pretend she was the Queen, invited a throng of celebrities to my fifth birthday party, including Neil Diamond, the famous singer; Ethel Barrymore, who was long deceased; Mrs. Birdsong, my nanny; Oprah Winfrey; Her Serene Highness Princess Reuss, the Countess of Plauen; and several cast members from the latest stage production of Starlight Express.
What the Semicolon Cannot Do
A common error made when using the semicolon is treating it as equivalent to a colon or dash, and using it to introduce material that expands or clarifies what has gone before. Look at the examples of incorrect usage:
- Let Samuelson and Pruitt give you what you need for your criminal defense; justice and a chance to have your say.
- Our podiatry clinic specializes in three foot ailments; corns, bunions, and fallen arches.
Just bear in mind that the semicolon is limited to substituting for the comma and period in specific circumstances, and you won’t make that mistake while writing for your own professional website.
A good part of learning to write informative content for your website involves recalling the fundamentals of composition that you were taught from grade school onward. You want to avoid embarrassing mistakes—in grammar, usage, or fundamental approach—that might make your website a disgrace rather than an asset.
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