The semicolon might be the only form of punctuation with an organized fan club—The Semicolon Appreciation Society. It might also be the most misunderstood of all punctuation marks.
Some writers overuse it; less confident writers avoid it for fear of misuse. And it is a peculiar looking punctuation: a period stacked atop a comma. In the realm of electronic communication it has literally become a wink.
For all the trouble it causes, should we just drop the semicolon?
Not a chance. A sentence rife with commas could put a semicolon to good use; or else—in what is considered by some writers its most elegant use—two sentences need it for the pause it allows instead of the harsh break of a period.
But where does this winking punctuation come from? When is it used in a sentence? And why, in this online world of lax punctuation, should we even care?
How and why it’s used—correctly
Writers and editors espouse varying opinions of the semicolon. Some love it; others find it useful and some consider it pretentious. Regardless of opinion, every writer should know its purpose.
“There are two main functions of the semicolon that a comma or colon cannot serve: to separate two independent clauses—essentially two ideas that could be two separate sentences—and to make items in a series readable,” explained Julie DeSilva, director of editorial services at ProofReadNow.com.
DeSilva provided this example for making lists more palatable with a semicolon: “In her report she listed the populations of San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles, California; and Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.”
It gets trickier when the semicolon is used to separate two independent clauses, although for writers like Julie Freeman this is its most exciting purpose.
The former president of the International Association of Business Communicators offered this example: “Recycle your bottles and cans; it is the right thing to do.” Why not drop a period between “cans” and “it”? She asked. Grammatically that choice is also correct.
“Using the semicolon shows the thoughts are closely related and helps to vary the sentence structure,” she explained. “Why not say ‘Recycle your bottles and cans because it is the right thing to do?’ (Also, grammatically correct.) [Because] using the semicolon gives the sentence a different rhythm and gives each thought more emphasis.”
A very brief history
If you struggle with the semicolon don’t worry; it took a while for this punctuation to catch on.
Around 1500 the Italian printer Aldus Manutius invented the semicolon “to separate worlds opposed in meaning and to mark off independent statements,” according to the English Department at Auburn University’s Web site.
Although English printer Henry Denham first used them in 1560, Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson is credited in 1591 as the first English writer to systematically employ the semicolon.
It would be 300 years before the semicolon enjoyed widespread use across Europe, Auburn’s website indicated.
Over 100 years later writers continue to struggle with it.
It gives greater emphasis to each clause and creates a pause—not a break like a period, but a moment to take stock of what the sentence hopes to convey.
“In this world of logorrhea, with its run-on sentences and endless parenthetical statements, the semicolon provides a much needed pause; without it, we would be stranded in a world without reflection,” corporate communicator Ron Shewchuk explained.
The devil’s advocate
There are some writers who dislike the semicolon and find it pretentious—chief among them Kurt Vonnegut.
“All they show is you’ve been to college,” he famously wrote.
Vonnegut even dubbed the semicolon a “transvestite hermaphrodite,” which isn’t completely ridiculous considering its appearance as a colon that’s part period, part comma.
Undoubtedly avoid the semicolon if you’re unsure of its accuracy, but if you’re certain a semicolon is needed then don’t refrain for Vonnegut’s reason.
One corporate communicator offered practical caution. She suggested the semicolon isn’t necessary in business writing because it muddies the message. “For the sake of clarity and ease of reading, it’s better to have two sentences, each punctuated with a period.”
Get it … wink, wink
The semicolon might be peculiar—perhaps unnecessary—but once mastered a communicator will likely find it essential for good writing.
In one way the semicolon cleans up a list; in another it gives readers a wink that subtly announces two independent thoughts are somehow closely related.
It also provides a moment to pause and reflect.
“Let’s look for opportunities to keep pausing; it’s a small pleasure for the reader,” Shewchuk said, “and a balm for the writer’s soul.