First of all: Is it a semicolon or semi-colon or semi colon? Well, the correct spelling is semicolon; it’s a common question. (See what we did there?)
The semicolon, that mysterious punctuation mark, actually has a rather non-mysterious beginning; a romantic one perhaps. It was created in arguably the most romantic city, Venice, in 1494 by Petri Bembi. He invented it for his book, De Aetna, because he wanted to create a pause in the prose about climbing the Italian volcano, Mt Etna. How fitting is it that shortly before Leonardo finished The Last Supper, a Renaissance era author decided we needed a new punctuation mark?
In her book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, author Cecelia Watson says that in the beginning, the semicolon had a dagger-like appearance, describing its comma-half tensely coiled, tail thorn-sharp beneath the perfect orb thrown high above it. Today it has softened somewhat, but still generates confusion and sometimes controversy. According to Watson, Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Orwell detest it, while Herman Melville, Henry James, and Martin Luther King, Jr love it. She calculates that there are four-thousand semicolons in Moby-Dick. True, it’s a “longish” book, but that’s still a bunch! And MLK, Jr used the semicolon to great effect in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Section IV of his letter contains a 350-word sentence made possible by skillful usage of the semicolon.
When to Use a Semicolon
Not very often, as it turns out. Author Donald Barthelme described the semicolon as uglier than a tick on a dog’s belly and Kurt Vonnegut… well, decorum prevents us from repeating his colorful denunciation of the semicolon. To be fair to the semicolon, though, it’s worth mentioning that Vonnegut also had a low opinion of Shakespeare!
There are three times to use a semicolon correctly:
- To separate items in a list that are long and/or contain other punctuation, like commas.
- To join two independent clauses without using a conjunction like “and” or “but.”
- To clarify a complicated sentence or for dramatic effect.
Separating Items in a List
We’ll start with this one since it’s the most straightforward. You can use semicolons to divide the items of a list if the items are long or contain internal punctuation. In these cases, the semicolon helps readers keep track of the divisions between the items. For example:
- Many cities in North America are named for cities in Europe such as London, Ontario; New York City, NY; Paris, TX; Athens, OH; Berlin, WI; Memphis, TN; and Dublin, CA.
- I planned on taking her to an expensive restaurant with fancy drinks, white tablecloths, and real cloth napkins; going for a walk to see the stars, the moon, and comet AEK27; and then serenading her with my accordion.
- Some of my favorite movies are Airplane!; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Fast & Furious; M*A*S*H; and Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
To Join Two Independent Clauses
Remember, semicolons are not interchangeable with commas or periods. Instead, they’re somewhere in between: stronger than a comma but not quite as divisive as a period. The most common use of the semicolon is to join two independent clauses without using a conjunction like “and” or “but.”
- Correct: Adam ate all his gefilte fish, but Mario did not.
- Also correct: Adam ate all his gefilte fish; Mario did not.
Do you use a capital letter after a semicolon? The general answer is no. A semicolon should be followed by a capital letter only if the word is a proper noun or an acronym.
- Let’s go to the library to study; evenings are pretty quiet there.
- Let’s go to the library to study; Mondays are pretty quiet there.
- I would love to go to Mars one day; engineering college here I come!
- I would love to go to Mars one day; NASA here I come!
In general, we use a semicolon if the second phrase sounds a little strange or terse by itself, especially if it wouldn’t be a sentence by itself. For example, our 16th president (Lincoln) was a fan of the semicolon who said: “I have great respect for the semicolon; he’s a useful little chap.”
- Staying in Venice is expensive; the hotel prices are exorbitant.
- Harry has royal blood; his brother will be King.
- John is at soccer practice; Matt is staying with friends.
- Andrew really loves fried chicken and roast turkey; he likes poultry for dinner.
- I have been practicing football like crazy; I hope to make the team next year.
Use a semicolon to replace a period between related sentences when the second sentence starts with either a conjunctive adverb or a transitional expression, such as:
- for example
- for instance
- that is
- I needed to go for a walk and get some fresh air; also, I needed to buy milk.
- Reports of the damage caused by the hurricane were greatly exaggerated; indeed, the storm was not a “hurricane” at all.
- The students had been advised against reading Moby Dick; however, Cathy decided to plow through it.
- I’m not all that fond of the colors of tiger lilies; moreover, they don’t smell very good.
- I don’t order Faux Gras at restaurants because of animal cruelty; besides, it’s slimy.
- I always eat raw onions for breakfast and lunch; consequently, I never get invited to meetings!
Semicolons should not be used between a dependent clause and an independent clause.
- Wrong: Although Martin is a bodybuilder; Jack is not.
- Correct: Although Martin is a bodybuilder, Jack is not.
To Improve Readability:
- Some classes require students to write essays, research papers, or reports; but others focus more on group projects.
- Horses, though their utility has been on the wane in recent decades, are still one of the great species of this planet; domesticated, yet proud, they watch silently as we humans rush by.
Semicolons in Business Writing
Although business writing has a creative side, it is not as free-style as creative writing. In general, the semicolon can be replaced by a conjunction or the sentence can be split in two. In business writing, the semicolon’s best use is in complex lists. Creative writing often eschews the kind of clear and concise style that is the standard of effective nonfiction and business writing.
In business writing, the humble semicolon should be used judiciously, occasionally to make a strong point or to clarify a sentence that, for some reason, cannot be easily simplified through a grammatical change. (Caution: irony ahead.) Semicolons usually find themselves in long sentences; short sentences usually work better in business. If you have a 127-word sentence in an e-mail message, job description, or annual report, you should be thinking about how to simplify it or split it up; not thinking about where you should put the semicolon and hoping to, in Vonnegut’s words, prove you went to college.
A Word About the Semicolon Tattoo
That’s right: the humble semicolon has come to have a powerful, personal meaning. It’s a tattoo that has gained popularity in recent years, but unlike other random or mystifying trends, this one has a serious meaning behind it. It symbolizes the idea of a thought that almost ended, but has been extended.
Semicolon Tattoo: Here’s What It Means and Why It Matters found on Upworthy.com, relates that a semicolon tattoo is a symbol of mental health challenges. Project Semicolon was born from a social media movement in 2013 dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. The author reports that people were encouraged to draw a semicolon on their bodies and photograph it, but that it grew into something greater and more permanent.
But why a semicolon? As the author says, “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”
Hiding in plain sight next to the “L” key on your keyboard, the semicolon is an often overlooked punctuation mark that you can add to your writer’s toolbox. It was called into existence for the express purpose of adding a bit of flair and interest to writing and when used in moderation, it can add flow, clarity, and a little punch to your writing.
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