The Beloved and Oft-Misused Semi-colon

I’m not sure why it is that teen writers love the semi-colon, but they do; however, despite their love for it, they often misuse the poor thing. I don’t think this is all their fault. For whatever reason, at least where I teach, students have a semi-colon “learning gap.”

They seem to be either terrified of semi-colons and avoid them at all costs, not having any idea how to use them. Or, they throw them in haphazardly (and often incorrectly), feeling like it makes their writing seem more sophisticated.

The question then becomes, how the heck do you use a semi-colon correctly?

It’s easiest to think about the semi-colon as somewhere between a comma and a period, like a soft period. You use it where you use a period, not where you use a comma.

3 Semi-Colon PUNCTUATION Rules

1) Use a semi-colon to separate two complete sentences (independent clauses) that are closely related in meaning.

Example: I’m starving; I’m going to eat a snack.

Explanation: “I’m starving” is a complete sentence. “I’m going to eat a snack” is also a complete sentence, so you’d put a semi-colon between the two.

To test in your own writing, make sure that whatever is before and after the semi-colon can stand alone as a complete sentence. If they can’t stand alone, use a comma.

2) When you use a conjunctive adverb to separate two complete sentences, put a semi-colon before the conjunctive adverb. Conjunctive adverbs are the “big words” used to link sentences such as: furthermore, nevertheless, therefore, however, then, besides, and consequently.

Example: I forgot to eat breakfast; therefore, I’m going to eat a big lunch.

Explanation: Again, the sentences before and after the semi-colon are independent clauses, meaning they are complete sentences and can stand alone. Check to make sure that whatever is on either side of the semi-colon is, in fact, a complete sentence.

3) Use a semi-colon to separate items in a list when those items contain a comma. Generally, you’d use a colon to introduce a longer list with semi-colons in it.

Example: Before my mom would let me go out on Friday night, she gave me a huge list of chores: clean my room, which was a disaster; finish the rest of my math homework, which was almost forty problems; and introduce her to my date, which was beyond embarrassing.

Explanation: If you only used commas to separate the items in the list, “which was a disaster” would become an item on the list, but it’s not a chore. Grammatically, it’s a non-restrictive clause, so it needs to be set off with a comma; therefore, there needs to be a semi-colon following the “which” clause, before the next listed item.

2 Semi-Colon STYLE Rules

Generally, a semi-colon is a more formal buy bupropion xl piece of punctuation.

1) If you’re writing contemporary fiction, fewer is better. If you use any at all, I would say one or two for a short story is more than enough. In a novel, one or two per chapter. Or, don’t use any at all.

2) If you’re writing historical fiction or have a more formal tone to your writing, you can get away with more semi-colons.

Here’s a sample of a really long sentence with multiple semi-colons from Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. This is one of my favorite classic novels as it has one of the greatest villains of all time, a truly evil guy, but the style is definitely more formal, quite different from what is written today.

The following is a single sentence, describing a house:

“The house had a name and a history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been delighted to tell you these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, had offered a night’s hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person had extended itself upon a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which still formed the principal honour of the sleeping apartments), had been a good deal bruised and defaced in Cromwell’s wars, and then, under the Restoration, repaired and much enlarged; and how, finally, after having been remodelled and disfigured in the eighteenth century, it had passed into the careful keeping of a shrewd American banker, who had bought it originally because (owing to circumstances too complicated to set forth) it was offered at a great bargain: bought it with much grumbling at its ugliness, its antiquity, its incommodity, and who now, at the end of twenty years, had become conscious of a real aesthetic passion for it, so that he knew all its points and would tell you just where to stand to see them in combination and just the hour when the shadows of its various protuberances–which fell so softly upon the warm, weary brickwork–were of the right measure” (James 18).

And that is quite a sentence! If you’re Henry James, you can get away with not only one semi-colon per page, but multiple semi-colons per sentence. Throughout the novel, James uses almost a semi-colon per paragraph, but as you can see, this usage fits his writing style.

(I’d like to thank Kathleen Ward, one of my professors at UC Davis, for instilling within me a solid grasp of grammar; she made us diagram sentences from Henry James like this one. Her class was a challenge but well worth the effort – it made me the word nerd/grammar geek I am today!)

What do you think about semi-colons? Use them or lose them?

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