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Writing 101: To Semi-Colon or not to Semi-Colon? That is the Question.
Responding to a Request
There are times when I’ll receive a question from a follower that requires an answer too long for the Mailbag series. This is one of those times. Jen recently made the following request:
“Especially in longer sentences with multiple fragments and layers. I am certain that I often misuse them. Maybe your ex-teacher skills could write a hub and help this girl out. I have searched the internet and many of the grammar handbooks, and no one has presented it in a way that makes sense.”
Semi-colons are a mystery to many writers. If it weren’t for eight years in Catholic grade school, tutored daily by humorless nuns, I wouldn’t have a clue what a semi-colon is or how it is used; however, I was taught by those nuns, and they did not tolerate lazy grammar, so I’m here now to pass on what I know. Rest assured that if you get this lesson wrong, I won’t hit you on the knuckles with a ruler, which is how we were corrected way back in the 50s.
Shall we begin with our lesson on semi-colons?
What Is a Semicolon?
Simply look at a semicolon and you’ll receive a clue regarding its purpose. It is halfway between a period and a comma or, if you prefer, it is a punctuation mark that combines some of the elements of both a period and a comma.
The purpose of a semicolon is to connect closely related ideas when you need something stronger than a comma, but you don’t want to end the sentence.
Still confused? Well of course you are, and who can blame you? Let’s move on and discuss the times you should use a semicolon, and I’ll even toss in some examples for free.
When to Use a Semicolon
There are basically four times you should choose to use a semicolon:
- To link two independent clauses to connect closely related ideas. For example…..Some people steer their car using their right hand; others guide a vehicle using their left hand.
- To link clauses that are connected by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases in order to connect close related ideas. An example of this would be…….No matter how they choose to steer their car, people are allowed to make their own decisions; as a result, many people swear their way is the best way.
- To link lists where the items contain commas, thus avoiding confusion between list items. An example of this would be…….There are basically three ways to steer a car: using the left hand, which is preferred by left-handed people; using the right hand, which is preferred by right-handed people; or using both hands, which is preferred by the National Insurance Institute.
- To link lengthy clauses, or clauses that contain commas, to avoid confusion. An example of this would be…..Some people steer a car with their left hand, mainly because they are left-handed; others, for a variety of reasons, will steer with their right hand.
Are you still confused, or are you beginning to see the light?
Let’s keep going and see if we can’t provide illumination for all concerned.
Situations That Call for Semicolons and Not Commas
One of the most common grammatical errors that writers make is using a comma where a semicolon should be, or a semicolon where a comma should be. Let me give you some examples that should clarify matters.
My hair is brown, it is also gray.
My hair is brown; it is also gray.
Which of those two is correct?
The second option was the correct one. Yes, there are two independent clauses in that sentence, but a comma cannot be used because there is no coordinating conjunction to join the clauses. This common error is called a comma splice. Avoid it! You could use a comma if you added a coordinating conjunction, as in…..My hair is brown, and it is also gray.
Let’s try another example.
I like gray hair, however, I hate that it makes me look older.
I like gray hair; however, I hate that it makes me look older.
Which is correct?
Ask yourself if we have a coordinating conjunction. If not, we need a semicolon. The second choice is correct. We could have used commas if the sentence read like this…..I like gray hair, but I hate that it makes me look older.
Is it clear yet?
Moving on to the next example…..
I like gray hair: it makes me look distinguished, which is a great thing, it makes me look wise, which is a very good thing, and it makes my complexion look more robust, which is better than looking pale.
I like gray hair: it makes me look distinguished, which is a great thing; it makes me look wise, which is a very good thing; and it makes my complexion look more robust, which is better than looking pale.
Which one is correct? Obviously the second choice…or maybe it’s not so obvious. The semicolon, in this case, is used to clearly separate the three choices in order to avoid confusion.
Is the fog lifting yet? Are we getting closer to an understanding?
We’ll do one more little quiz and then move on.
Gray hair, although frowned upon by many over the years, is still a symbol of maturity and wisdom, dashing, yet understated, it may add years to a man’s appearance, but also a regal quality.
Gray hair, although frowned upon by many over the years, is still a symbol of maturity and wisdom; dashing, yet understated, it may add years to a man’s appearance, but also a regal quality.
Obviously, the second choice is correct because, hey, it’s always the second choice. In this example, it is difficult to tell where the first independent clause ends, and the next one begins, when commas are used.
Did you find this lesson helpful?
Semicolons in Fiction
I am a fiction writer. I mention that only because I am infinitely more focused on the story than I am grammar, a point my editor pointed out as she was reading my last book, Resurrecting Tobias. One of her first comments to me was that I love semicolons, and that I used them, in that book, a bit too much.
In fact, she went on to say that agents, and publishers, frown on the use of semicolons in fiction. That was news to me, so I started paying attention to novels I read, and I did research online, and it turns out she was right. How could I have ever doubted her?
Agents and publishers do frown on the use of semicolons in fiction. They would much prefer that writers use commas and periods instead of writing long sentences with multiple independent clauses joined by semicolons. It has to do with rhythm and flow, the thinking being that long sentences have a tendency to slow the action down to a crawl.
I understand that and, for the most part, agree with it. My writing today has very few semicolons in it, and I don’t feel like the quality has been hurt at all.
Having said that, the final decision is the writer’s to make. Use semicolons, don’t use semicolons, whatever, but use them correctly when you do and stay true to your style and voice. At the end of the day, your name is attached to the article, short story, or novel, and you have to feel good about the final product.
I Think That About Covers It
Jen, thanks for the question. I hope I’ve cleared the muddy waters for all of you. If not, ask for clarification in the comment section below and I’ll try my best to respond intelligently.
Have fun! Have fun with your commas and your periods, your semicolons and your colons. That’s what writing should be….fun!
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”