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When to Use a Semicolon... Or Not

Updated on November 5, 2017
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Heidi Thorne is a self publishing expert, nonfiction book editor, author of 21+ books and eBooks, and a former trade newspaper editor.

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Semicolon Overdose

“Wow,” was all I could think as I reviewed an author’s book manuscript and encountered somewhere in the neighborhood of 125+ semicolons in around 70 pages of text. In my own book of about 112 pages, I had maybe 12. And most of mine were there to separate items in a list.

I thought that manuscript was an anomaly. But then another one showed up from a different client. Then I got one more, much longer manuscript to review that was loaded with them on every page.

Semicolons are the most misunderstood and misused of the punctuation marks. So why did these authors feel the need to use them? Did they think it would make their work seem more authoritative or academic? Or were they trying to placate some long-gone grade school or high school English teacher? (In other words, "See, I know how to use a semicolon!")

What is a Semicolon?

A semicolon provides a break in the flow of the writing—more of a break than that provided by a comma—for the purpose of providing clarity (such as enumerating items in a list) or to connect ideas. When used to connect ideas, both ideas must be complete sentences. This creates what is known as a compound sentence.

Using a Semicolon in a List

Semicolons are used to separate items in a list. Typically, a comma would suffice as a punctuation mark to separate the items. But when the items are longer strings of words, the semicolon helps the reader know where one item stops and another starts. Without semicolons, it could be confusing for the reader to figure out.

The list is often preceded by a colon, although that is not always required as the second example will show.

Example 1:

Four of the most popular self publishing platforms are: Amazon Createspace; Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing; Lulu; and, Smashwords.

In this first example, commas could have been used, but using the semicolons makes it clearer, given that some of the names have multiple words.

Example 2:

To prepare a document for self publishing, an author needs to finish writing the manuscript; have a editor review it; format the document; proofread it; and, finally, upload it to the self publishing platform.

In the second example, the semicolons help differentiate the steps. So using them in this type of situation provides clarity. A colon could have been inserted after the word to, but it is not necessary.

However, if document space is available, this sentence could just as easily have be rewritten with a list of bullet points. In fact, that would even be clearer and would prevent this never ending sentence that looks like a paragraph. In this case, a colon would be placed after the word to.

To prepare a document for self publishing, an author needs to:

  • Finish writing the manuscript;
  • Have an editor review it;
  • Format the document;
  • Proofread it;
  • Upload it to the self publishing platform.

While I used semicolons at the end of each item except for the last, periods could just as easily have been used for all items in this instance since each item completes the introductory sentence.

When to Use a Semicolon Versus a Period

This is where I think most of the authors who overdosed on semicolons got into trouble. Maybe they didn’t believe that their readers would connect ideas?

When a semicolon is used, both halves of the sentence need to have the ability to stand alone as separate sentences (also known as independent clauses). In my opinion, smashing clauses together like this makes them read awkwardly and even seem to be run on sentences. Just sayin’.

Example:

Joe religiously went to school every day, even when he was sick; his perfect attendance record was important to him.

While the semicolon connects the two ideas about Joe’s commitment to going to school, this sentence could just as easily be two sentences without loss of communication.

Joe religiously went to school every day, even when he was sick. His perfect attendance record was important to him.

However, if the semicolon was replaced with a comma, and the word because was added after it, it would have created a much more conversational rendering of the ideas without the semicolon. (And for your grammar nerds out there, yes, adding because turns the last part of the sentence into a dependent clause.)

Joe religiously went to school every day, even when he was sick, because his perfect attendance record was important to him.

So before automatically creating a compound sentence with a semicolon, always consider whether splitting the sentence into two, or rewording it, would provide better clarity or readability.

Disclaimer: Both the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparation of this information. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and both parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice and strategies presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional advisor where and when appropriate. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or punitive, arising from or relating to your reliance on this information.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne

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  • Suhail and my dog profile image

    Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 4 weeks ago from Mississauga, ON

    Hub bookmarked for future reference!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 4 weeks ago from Chicago Area

    Suhail, you're not alone in being confused! I have to wonder who invented the darn semicolon anyway. :)

    True, in many instances (such as in the example list you noted), semicolons are the better choice. And, as you note, there may be conventions that need to be observed, such as for governance or official documents. The situation will always dictate the proper path.

    Thanks for chiming in and offering your personal experience! Have a great week!

  • Suhail and my dog profile image

    Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 4 weeks ago from Mississauga, ON

    Hi Heidi,

    I am always confused about using semicolons and I think that your article will help me use them in a better way.

    Typically, I use semicolons in my regulatory governance documents in the manner you have illustrated in one example above:

    "To prepare a document for self publishing, an author needs to:

    Finish writing the manuscript;

    Have an editor review it;

    Format the document;

    Proofread it;

    Upload it to the self publishing platform."

    This article is far better than some others I have read on the net.

    Regards,

    Suhail

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 5 weeks ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Leah! I think most of us are judicious with semicolons, but, you're right, we all need a reminder now and then. Appreciate you stopping by and joining the conversation. Have a great day!

  • thebiologyofleah profile image

    Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 5 weeks ago from Massachusetts

    I don't feel I use semicolons that often but I always appreciate a refresher on a grammar topic. There are a few tricky rules I am constantly trying to re-learn. Thanks for sharing!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 5 weeks ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Venkatachari! I totally agree with you in splitting sentences into simpler, more digestible ones. I think it flows better that way, too.

    Indeed, I could have left the colons off after "Example." Just a judgment call on my part.

    Thanks so much for joining the conversation! Have a beautiful day!

  • Venkatachari M profile image

    Venkatachari M 5 weeks ago from Hyderabad, India

    I always avoid semicolons as they create confusion. I try to split the sentences into simple ones. Your article is very helpful to know when to use them.

    But, you put the colons after the words "Example 1" and "Example 2". I never use the colon there. I think there is no need for it.

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 5 weeks ago from Chicago Area

    Bill, in fiction, semicolons would be very unsettling! And you nailed why. They break the flow of the story and ideas. Luckily, you're enlightened. :) Happy Sunday to you, too!

  • heidithorne profile image
    Author

    Heidi Thorne 5 weeks ago from Chicago Area

    Flourish, it was quite a feat! Because semicolons are so unusual, to see them used in excess was truly jarring. And I'm sure I'll someday see another manuscript just like these. Thanks for taking a moment to stop by and comment! Happy Weekend!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 5 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

    I write fiction, as you know, and I was told a long time ago to avoid using semicolons in fiction. I see no reason to break that unwritten rule. If I have to rely on a semicolon, in fiction, I really shouldn't be writing. :) Happy Sunday to you!

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 5 weeks ago from USA

    If you weren’t checking for grammar, punctuation, and technical details but rather flow and content, I don’t know how you overlooked such a glaring issue in those manuscripts.