When it comes to grammar rules, the proper usage of a semicolon stumps even the most seasoned writers and grammatical pros. I try to channel my grandfather, The Colonel, to see what he would advise me on this particular subject. “Now granddaughter,” he’d say… and I draw a blank. This is the one piece of punctuation that stops me in my tracks.
I begin my search for the semicolon with the most basic definition, “The punctuation mark used to indicate a major division in a sentence where a more distinct separation is felt between clauses or items on a list than is indicated by a comma, as between two clauses of a compound sentence.”
Let’s simplify things a little – semicolons separate things. Semicolons separate independent clauses that are related to each other, but could stand on their own if you wanted them to.
Example: My birthday is next week; I want cupcakes.
Both of these independent clauses function quite well as their own sentences. A semicolon can help you emphasize the relationship between these two clauses. It’s my birthday. I want cupcakes. On the other hand, don’t try to jam two independent clauses together with a semicolon if they really have nothing to do with each other.
WRONG: My birthday is next week; gas is expensive.
Where I get the most confused is when there’s a coordinating conjunction in the mix. If you’re going to join the clauses using coordinating conjunctions “and,” “so,” or “but,” that’s really the job of a comma. Naturally, with every grammar rule, there’s an exception and it involves complex clauses or a complex list.
Complex clause: If you want to take me out for my birthday, you need to make reservations at my favorite restaurant before Thursday; but, if I’m being honest, I don’t really care where we go.
Complex list: For my year-long birthday celebration, I’m going to arrange trips to Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; and Jackson, Wyoming.
When they’re used properly, semicolons can add variety to your writing. Too many short, choppy sentences? A semicolon could help things flow a little better. I’m hardly the first grammarian to try to explain how semicolons should be used. My favorite go-to is The Oatmeal (plus, that site makes me laugh every single time I read it).
If you’re still searching for the proper time and place to use the semicolon and are just getting frustrated, then lighten up, and go to my favorite post of the week, touting the benefits of the hemi-demi-semi colon. I’m sure The Colonel wouldn’t judge you (I certainly won’t), or use mockwotation marks. He would, though, read to you using Morgan Freemarks.
Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at email@example.com
Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.