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When to Use a Semicolon... Or Not
“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.
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.
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’.
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.
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© 2017 Heidi Thorne