How semicolons work

Shedding some light on this most misunderstood of punctuation marks.

Semicolons can be very confusing.

The poor semicolon. This humble punctuation mark can confuse even seasoned writers. Even its name, only half a colon, is sad and misleading.

Don’t worry, little guy. You’re so much more.

Let’s dig into how to properly use the semicolon in your writing. As usual, Ragan’s source here is AP style as it’s the go-to for most communicators. However, make sure that’s what you’re using in your organization and that there are no homebrew rules you should be aware of.

What is a semicolon, exactly?

According to “The Associated Press Stylebook” 2020-2022 edition, a semicolon is generally used “to indicate a greater separation of thought and information than a comma can convey but less than the separation that a period implies.”

That clears everything up, right? End of story, move on with your day.

OK, in case you need a little more clarification, let’s go deeper.

In plainer terms, a semicolon indicates a bigger pause than a comma, but a smaller pause  than a period. You aren’t bringing the sentence to a full stop, but you aren’t scurrying from one item to the next, either. The semicolon is the middle ground punctuation.

Its classic use is to join independent clauses when you aren’t using a conjunction. Let’s look at some examples.

I like Brie; she likes Roquefort.

These are independent clauses because each could stand on its own with a period, since they each contain both subject and verb. These sentences could also be linked with a conjunction, like so:

I like Brie and she likes Roquefort.

However, when used with a semicolon, the opinions of the cheese lovers are given equal weight. They aren’t being contrasted, compared or otherwise connected other than as two statements of fromage fact.

You can also use a semicolon with a conjunction, but only if there is “extensive punctuation” in one or both clauses, like so:

I like Brie, mozzarella, fontina and cheddar; but she likes Roquefort, Parmesan and Swiss.

However, AP style suggests just rewriting the sentence in this instance to avoid a semicolon and a conjunction.

Semicolons in a series

The other use for a semicolon, is in a complex series where there are already commas, and another mark is needed to clarify where the breaks between each item are. For example:

John lived in Indianapolis, Indiana for two years; Burlington, North Carolina for four years; and Charleston, Illinois for a few months.

This is the instance when you’ll be more likely to use a semicolon in the course of communications work. Not to start another Oxford comma debate, but you should use a semicolon before the last item in the series.

To recap

Semicolons are like heavy-duty commas. Use them when you need a longer pause, whether that’s because the two parts of your sentence have equal weight or because you have a fiddly list that already has briefer punctuation.

Still unsure about whether or not you should use a semicolon? There’s no shame in rewriting your sentence so you’re sure you won’t need it. The semicolon is a handy tool, but they’re easily avoided if you’re in doubt.




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