Let's be honest, semicolons are probably the most feared punctuation mark out there. How often have we typed up a story or essay happily on Word when suddenly that squiggly line appears underneath a sentence suggesting you should use a semicolon? When that happens, do you do it immediately or do you just rewrite the sentence? I can understand where everyone is coming from. Since I know not a lot of people understand the uses for a semicolon, I tend to avoid using them to not have them stand out so much on a page. However, now that we're here in this instalment of 'What is a.... semicolon?' we can finally feel a little more confident in using them!
Semicolons are pretty useful when used correctly. They can help clear ambiguity or provide an emphasis where a comma cannot. This punctuation mark is so mysterious, we tend to think there must be so many complex situations where they can be used which must be avoided at all costs. With the reputation they have, you would think only amazing literary geniuses are allowed to use the semicolon because no one else on this Earth seems to understand. Well, guess what, semicolons are actually very simple and have very little rules against them. My understanding of these punctuation marks comes from a range of different resources. However, the main source I will be referring to is the Style manual for authors, editors and printers by Snooks & Co (2002).
Ultimately, there are two rules as to when a semicolon can be used. That's right, two. That doesn't sound so scary, does it? Not compared to the many rules a comma has! In the most basic way to describe it, a semicolon can be used to link to full clauses together if they are closely linked in meaning and when separating internally punctuated run-on lists.
Linking full clauses
When I say 'full clauses', I mean complete sentences. I don't know if your teachers regarded sentence fragments as a sin in writing like mine did but basically we want to avoid those at all costs when using semicolons. Sentence fragments and semicolons have never gotten along.
What does that mean exactly? Well, if you have two full sentences that could be separated by an 'and' or a full stop, there is a possibility you could use a semicolon instead! I write 'possibility' because there is another aspect to it, which is that they need to be closely linked in meaning. We can't just have two full clauses next to each other separated by a semicolon. We'd have no other reason for the full stop other than to finish a sentence if that was the case!
Basically, the sentence needs to make logical sense when put together. For example, 'Jarred played a song for Chelsea on his piano; she wept with happiness'. This sentence makes sense and is grammatically correct because Jarred playing a song for Chelsea could result in her weeping with happiness. However, if the sentence read 'Jarred played a song for Chelsea on his piano; let's throw a ball in the back corner of the field', it doesn't make sense. Yes, it may seem confusing since it could be seen as a subjective decision. Nonetheless, if there is a sentence with two full clauses that are closely linked with meaning... well, try and throw a semicolon in there!
It should also be noted the use of expressions, such as 'however' and 'nevertheless', when using semicolons. Again, the meanings of the two full clauses need to be closely linked, for example, 'Sally was covered in sweat; however, she only ran 20 metres'. In these instances, either use a semicolon for the extra emphasis or use a full stop. Do not use a comma.
Internally punctuated lists
Have you ever been in a situation where you're writing a story and you want to write a list but some of the things in that list are internally punctuated with commas? It can be very confusing having a sentence that reads like 'I was on a mission at the shops because I needed to get red, green and yellow capsicums, grapes, apples, strawberries, some of those smelly, squeaky markers in yellow, black and red, a dozen herbs, and some flimsy, colourful cellophane for the decorations'.
Well, how do we fix this problem? With semicolons, of course! In situations where commas are being used in these run-on lists, the best way to ensure that there is no confusion about what goes with what is by separating it all with semicolons. The above sentence would then become 'I was on a mission at the shops because I needed to get red, green and yellow capsicums; grapes; apples; strawberries; some of those smelly, squeaky markers in yellow, black and red; a dozen herbs; and some flimsy, colourful cellophane for the decorations'. See how much easier that is to read and understand?
And that's it! That's all there is to it when it comes to semicolons! You might be thinking to yourself 'gosh, why was I so scared to use a semicolon before?' Well, don't worry about it because we've all felt that way. We might still feel that way as we get used to putting some semicolons into our sentences from now on, or we can continue doing what we did before and avoid semicolons at all costs. At least we understand how to use them, even if we never do!
What do you think about the semicolon? Anything you'd like to add? Let me know in the comments or on social media!
Remember to ignite the story and I'll seen you again soon!
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.