Our next couple of lessons will be about two seldom used but useful punctuation marks, the semicolon and the colon. When used properly, these punctuation marks can give you new ways to tweak the clarity and rhythm of your writing.
Colons and semicolons are two different things!
Although a colon and a semicolon look very similar, their uses are different. You cannot use the two punctuation marks interchangeably. You’ll see exactly why this is once you’ve completed both this lesson and the next one on use of the colon.
Think of a semicolon as halfway between a comma and a period.
When you break the mark itself down, it’s a period stacked on top of a comma. It’s similar to how placing a dot behind a music note indicates it’s played for a length of time halfway between the note written and its double. A semicolon indicates a pause halfway between what you’d use for a comma and the full stop indicated by a period.
Okay, so it’s just a stylistic mark?
No. There are definite rules for when and where to use a semicolon. Some of them are related to the use of a comma or a period, but there are distinct differences too.
Join two sentences without a conjunction.
That’s not to say semicolons have no stylistic uses, just that you have to know how and when to use them. For instance, if you want to make two points back to back, while giving each more weight than they would have if joined with a comma and conjunction, use a semicolon.
Finishing the race was no easy task; half of the runners gave up and quit.
Both clauses joined in the example above are complete sentences on their own. The second is so connected to the first, using a comma and a conjunction to join them would “sound” odd. At the same time, coming to a full stop after “task,” as you would with a period separating them, would create too much of a break between the two independent clauses.
You have to make sure what you are joining is two independent clauses though. Semicolons cannot be used to connect an introductory clause to a sentence. In those instances, you must use a comma.
Use a semicolon to combine sentences using a transitional word or phrase.
Sometimes you may need to transition from one point to another within a sentence. If both sides of the complex sentence are independent clauses, you can combine them with the use of a transitional word or phrase preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma.
Mary knew the cake she made wasn’t perfect; nevertheless, she was proud of it.
Learning to write in English is difficult; namely, learning all the rules and their exceptions takes years of study and practice.
You could separate these sentences by placing a period where the semicolon is and just capitalizing the transitional word. However, the topics of both sentences are so closely related, combining them this way makes more sense. Note that the way they are joined isn’t really different from the ones we combined in the first example. Anytime an independent clause is preceded by a transitional word or phrase, the phrase will be separated from the clause itself by a comma. So once again, we are only swapping a period for a semicolon to connect instead of separate the sentences.
Use semicolons when lists become complicated.
Have you ever needed to list a bunch of cities with their country or state or maybe a list of dates with their years? It gets confusing if you just use commas to separate the different items because each item contains a comma of its own. In these instances, use a semicolon to separate each item to make the list clearer.
My favorite convention draws people from all over the region. I’ve met people from Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and a bunch of smaller cities and towns all over the southeastern United States.
Imagine that second sentence without the semicolons, and then take another look at it. Make a whole lot more sense with the semicolons, doesn’t it?
Swap it for a comma in a compound sentence joined with a conjunction, if there are several commas in the first sentence.
This is one you don’t see often, but like with the complex list example above, sometimes a sentence just has too many commas. To avoid confusion when the first sentence in a compound sentence is complex and has two to four commas, you can substitute a semicolon for the comma that would normally connect the sentences. This just makes it clearer for your reader.
When the temperatures dropped, for the third time this spring, everything froze over; and the sudden, severe cold killed our apple tree.
Remember the usual capitalization rules for building compound and compound complex sentences.
While semicolons are “related” to periods, they do not require the word following them to be capitalized. Treat the capitalization of words following a semicolon the same way you would a comma. If it’s a proper noun, go ahead, but leave common nouns, conjunctions, or anything but a proper noun all in lower case.
Here you have the basics of using a semicolon in your writing. If you have questions or anything to add, please comment below. I attempt to answer any and all questions and comments within twenty-four hours.
Please come back in a couple of weeks for the next lesson on the use of colons.
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