Category Archives: Semicolon Usage

Half a Colonoscopy, or a Look at a Pesky Mark of Punctuation

Semicolons give my students and fellow writers grammatical constipation.  Marks of punctuation like commas and semicolons used to be given to indicate to someone who was reading the text aloud that a pause was needed.  The rules have changed because moderns don’t typically write or enjoy long sentences, so pauses are much less frequent.  Perhaps air pollution has created generations of asthmatic readers, but most sentences are less than one breath long.  Unfortunately, many writers still feel the need to insert something whenever the sentence seems too long.  Here, for the benefit of my readers, is a lesson in the correct usage of the semicolon.

1.  Separation of independent clauses:

Jack went up the hill; Jill watched him climb.

In that sentence, the halves could have been separated into two sentences.  They are joined together because they have equal weight.  Consider this sentence:

Jack went up the hill; Jill, who was much wiser, remained at the bottom in anticipation.

The semicolon there is grammatically correct, but the writer ought to break the sentence up into two.  “Jack went up the hill” would be more powerful alone, and the second part has enough in it so as not to need an appendage.  Now look at this one:

Jack went to the doctor; his crown was broken.

In that example, the second half explains the reason for the first.  A better sentence would be, “Jack went to the doctor because his crown was broken.”  Remember that semicolons are best used to join two sentences that are equal, but an explanation is not the equivalent of an action.

2.  Separation of items in a list in which commas are also used:

Jimbo needed to go to the store to buy a new fishing pole, his favorite tool; a roll of duct tape, that univeral binder; and a bag of chips, something to occupy his stomach while he pursued tasks other than dining.

Each item in that list has a piece of information given about it after a comma.  The reason for the semicolons there is to make clear where the separations between items happen.  The list has only three items, not six.  Creating a list like this isn’t easy.  It requires careful balancing of the elements.  Here’s an example of how to do it badly:

She walked along the beach, picking up seashells; driftwood, which always intrigued her with its patterns; and plastic cups.

Only one of those items is given any detail.  It would be better to write it this way:

She walked along the beach, picking up seashells and plastic cups.  She also collected driftwood, something that had always intrigued her with its patterns.

Since the driftwood is more important than the other two items, it deserves its own sentence.

Are things flowing along properly now?  That is it.  There are no other uses for the semicolon in modern English.  Go forth in better grammatical health.