semicolons

“It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.”

~ Lewis Thomas

Semicolons are awesome because they allow for subtle connections that compare, contrast, or even build upon each other. You can use them to make a quick pair or series of ideas, each extending from the one before it. That’s what makes it a semicolon: they’re half and half, combining the anticipation of the colon with the subtlety of a comma. Very suave.

Professional Examples

  • The use of a semicolon indicates a close relationship between clauses; it gives the sentence a tight, separate-but-equal bond.

~from Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar

  • Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • In simple terms, if they love it, you’re worthy; if they don’t, you’re worthless.

~from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly

  • Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence; it takes conscience, our belief that something is beautiful because it’s right.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • A rifle protruded from the young man’s backpack, but he looked friendly enough; a hitchhiker with a Remington semiautomatic isn’t the sort of thing that gives motorists pause in the forty-ninth state.

~from John Krakauer’s Into the Wild

  • Kennedy was not bothered by these attacks; indeed he joked about them.

~from Evan Thomas’s “What Teddy Can Teach Us,”
Newsweek Sept. 7, 2009

  • Our future shouldn’t be shaped by what’s best for our politics; our politics should be shaped by what’s best for our future.

~from President Obama’s Remarks at the GOP House Issues Conference,
29 Jan 2010

  • The student doesn’t try to match his or her sentence with a rule in a handbook, then respond in a behavioral sense; instead, the student reads and considers his or her intentions and the reader’s needs, then decides according to intended meaning and emphasis.

~John Hawkins’s “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool”

Past Student Examples

  • Debt is a problem when it cannot be managed; it becomes unmanageable when it is not understood. ~Andy
  • The average American woman is 5’4″ and weighs 142 pounds; the average model is 5’9″ and weighs 110 pounds. ~Marie
  • This may not seem like a big percentage of students that say there was involvement in gangs; however, the number is rising and when drug abuse rises, gang involvement also rises. ~Aimee

How Semicolons Work

Independent clause; independent clause.

Basically, you are combining two sentences. Instead of having a period in between them, you use a semicolon and change the capital letter of the second sentence to lowercase. Even better, you aren’t limited to two independent clauses; three, four, or even more can be combined this way.

The semicolon is sort of the compromise between a period and a comma + conjunction. The period has a heavy separation, while sometimes the comma + conjunction doesn’t feel like enough separation. That’s when you want a semicolon. It connects the independent clauses, showing the reader that there is a close relationship between them, often comparing one thing to another or building on an idea.

(The other use of the semicolon, between items in a list, we’ll look at along with “commas in a series” later.)

Self Check

When you write a sentence with a semicolon, check that there is an independent clause on each side of the semicolon. Look at each section by itself (covering up the rest) to make sure that each part could be its own complete sentence. If one of the parts couldn’t stand alone, the semicolon isn’t working.

Confusion Warning

If you have trouble confusing a semicolon and a colon, think of it this way:

  • “Semi” suggests “half” and a sort of equality; it looks like it’s half comma, half colon, and it splits a sentence into two fairly equal halves with an independent clause on each side.
  • A colon, however, does what the colon in your body does: it pushes the emphasis toward the end! Gross, yeah, but I bet you won’t forget the difference. 😉

If your sentence has full independent clauses on each side and is comparing the sides in some way, use a semicolon. If your sentence has a full independent clause that anticipates some answer to be given at the end, use a colon.

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