General Thoughts on the Semicolon:
For some reason unbeknownst to me, this is the punctuation mark that people love to hate. Some say it is too stuffy and formal for fiction; others say it shouldn’t be used even in nonfiction because readers don’t understand it.
But I love me a well-placed semicolon, both in fiction and nonfiction. And even in dialogue if the character would speak that thought in a semicolon.
If you prefer not to use semicolons in your manuscript, I respect your choice. But I do find them useful.
Unlike commas and periods, semicolons aren’t required. You can easily rewrite a sentence to never need a semicolon, so essentially, they are stylistic choices.
Use a semicolon between two independent clauses that are closely related in thought when you want to give them equal rank and/or show them as one complete thought. Do not just put a semicolon between any two clauses.
Terms to Know:
Clause: A clause contains both a subject and a verb
Independent clause: Can stand on its own—essentially, a complete sentence
I am not a fan of concerts; however, I think it is important to share your interests so I will go with you.
- This could be two separate sentences with a period instead of a semicolon, but putting them together shows that the thought isn’t fully complete after concerts. Perhaps they wanted their spouse to know they aren’t saying no as the thought continues. A period would give a stronger pause, and the spouse may think they are saying no.
- The author could use a comma and a coordinating conjunction: I am not a fan of concerts, but I think . . . If you aren’t a fan of semicolons, this would be a great option as it still allows you to keep the two clauses as one unified thought/sentence. But sometimes, this option doesn’t work as well. See the next example.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed (King 157).
- This could be two separate sentences where Martin Luther King put the semicolon, but I imagine he put them together because the thought doesn’t fully end with the idea that freedom is not voluntarily given but rather that it is demanded by the oppressed. That second independent clause is the main point of the thought, and he wanted to put the main point in with the introductory idea.
- None of the coordinating conjunctions (and, nor, but, for, yet, so) really work with these independent clauses.
Everyone has a preference. Some are more motivation-oriented; others, more drive-oriented.
- One great benefit of putting two independent clauses together is if they have the same verb, you can use a comma with an elided verb in the second clause. Instead of repeating the “are” in the second clause, a comma stands in its place.
- Yes, you could use a coordinating conjunction “Some are more motivation-oriented, and others, more drive-oriented,” but the author may not want the conjunction as it packs more punch without.
Example of poor semicolon use
As stated in the style rule, you don’t want to put semicolons between any two sentences. You should have a reason for doing so.
He drank three ounces of his bottle; I used the Avenir bottle.
- While both of these clauses are about my son’s bottle, they are not closely related enough in thought to put them together. The type of bottle I used isn’t why he drank three ounces so there isn’t a close enough connection to put them together.
Note: Since semicolons are a stylistic choice, you could always put a period instead of a semicolon when joining independent clauses, and with some sentences, you could use a coordinating conjunction and a comma. However, for practice purposes, put a semicolon between any sentences where it may make sense to do so. Do not put semicolons between clauses not closely related in thought, when there aren’t two complete clauses, or when a coordinating conjunction is joining the clauses.
- I worked really hard therefore, I deserve a break.
- I have a lot to do more than I realized at first.
- He told me about my parents’ jobs: one was a house painter the other, a teacher.
- I don’t correct others’ grammar on social media it is rude and annoying.
- I have a big test tomorrow so I can’t go out tonight.
- Any significant changes or additions may result in a revised deadline and/or fee if the work appears to require more time than expected based on the sample, I will alert you before starting.
- However they choose to write, people are allowed to make their own decisions as a result, many people swear by their writing methods.
- I worked really hard; therefore, I deserve a break.
- I have a lot to do (no semicolon) more than I realized at first. (The second clause is not an independent clause, but since it is nonrestrictive—not essential to the meaning of the sentence— you would put a comma here.)
- He told me about my parents’ jobs: one was a house painter; the other, a teacher.
- I don’t correct others’ grammar on social media; it is rude and annoying
- I have a big test tomorrow (no semicolon) so I can’t go out tonight. (The second independent clause is being joined to the first with a coordinating conjunction, so one uses a comma.)
- Any significant changes or additions may result in a revised deadline and/or fee. (no semicolon. Use a period) If the work appears to require more time than expected based on the sample, I will alert you before starting. (These sentences are not closely related enough in thought to be put together. One is about changes and additions, and the other about time required.)
- However they choose to write, people are allowed to make their own decisions; as a result, many people swear by their writing methods.
Check out part 2 of semicolons with independent clauses to learn another instance when you may want to use a semicolon.
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