Kurt Vonnegut has been one of my favorite writers for as long as I remember reading books, but he has written one bit of punctuation advice I just can’t swallow: “Do not use semicolons,” he writes. “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”*
Though there may be some truth to that final sentiment, semicolons really are quite useful, need not be avoided, and are certainly nothing to be afraid of. They aren’t so much transvestites as chimera — part period, part comma, but not wholly either.
I believe one reason many people are confounded by semicolons is that they’re misnamed (the semicolons, not the people). The only thing a semicolon has in common with the colon is its appearance: It’s a colon with a tail. This punctuation mark might be more readily understood if it were called the semiperiod or semistop, or maybe the supercomma. Why? Because if you already know how the period (or full stop) and the comma work, these names give you something familiar to start from.
But we aren’t going to rename the semicolon. Instead, let’s learn how to use it:
Separating Clauses with a Semicolon
The semicolon separates two independent clauses without an intervening conjunction. A semicolon used this way could be replaced by a period to create two separate and complete sentences. So why not just do that — make it two sentences — or use a comma and a conjunction?
The semicolon allows you to create or imply a connection between the two clauses. It turns the two statements into a single idea, perhaps revealing (or implying) cause and effect, motivation, or subtext. Consider this example:
Everyone treated The Old Man like an intimate friend; he was well known for giving extravagant gifts to those closest to him.
Notice how the second half of the sentence subtly provides the motive behind the actions in first half. The people don’t treat The Old Man well from a feeling of love but from greed. The semicolon yields a single sentence that says more than the two clauses would independently.
Yes, you could use a period there instead of a semicolon, but that full stop would weaken the link between the two clauses. In the other direction, joining the two clauses with for or as would remove any semblance of subtlety. The semicolon splits the difference perfectly.
In this way, the semicolon acts like a semiperiod or semistop : It works almost like a period, but without the complete stop.
The Semicolon in Lists
One of the many uses of commas is to separate items in a list. Without commas, English might be full of mind-numbing repetitions of conjunctions.
Just ask Lou and Eric and Ed and Mark and Tobey and Andrew and Tom and George and Christopher and Brandon and Henry.
Commas turn this sentence into the slightly more manageable
Just ask Lou, Eric, Ed, Mark, Tobey, Andrew, Tom, George, Christopher, Brandon, and Henry.
But this still doesn’t say what it needs to stay, because these are more than just eleven names; they’re three specific groups. It ought to look more like this:
Just ask Lou, Eric, Ed, and Mark, and Tobey, Andrew, and Tom, and George, Christopher, Brandon, and Henry.
But that’s not much clearer. Here, the semicolon (or the supercomma) can act like a regular comma but separating list items that contain commas of their own. Properly used, the semicolon lets the reader clearly separate the Hulks, Spidermen, and Supermen.
Just ask Lou, Eric, Ed, and Mark; Tobey, Andrew, and Tom; and George, Christopher, Brandon, and Henry.
So, in short, semicolons
- separate independent clauses without an intervening conjunction.
- separate list items that contain internal punctuation.
Far from being something to be avoided or feared, the semicolon is indispensable to clear writing. Learn it, love it, and use it.
* From A Man without a Country