Version Date: October 14, 2010
Semicolon use appears to have been declining in recent years,
because fewer and fewer people are confident about the proper role of
punctuation mark. Here are several ways to use the semicolon as an
tool for enhancing clarity and emphasis in your writing.
1. Use a semicolon as a soft period. By
using a semicolon instead
of a period between two sentences, you show that those two sentences
a closer relationship to each other than they do to the sentences
them. The semicolon, in a sense, connects the sentences. (If you added
a coordinating conjunction and a comma, you would show less of a
and with a period you show only the connection of proximity.)
Notice in the first Carlyle example that the two sentences about life
death are connected by a semicolon to join them closer and point up the
contrast. Similarly, the next two sentences are also contrasting with
other ("never was a sport" versus "stern reality") and are also joined
In books I find the dead as if they were alive; from books come forth
laws of peace. --Richard de Bury
It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world; to die is not
for a man. Man's life never was a sport to him; it was a stern reality,
altogether a serious matter to be alive! --Thomas Carlyle
Education is a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge, and it
the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation.
For nothing hinders a man's walking by the principles of his soul, but
an opportunity to exert them; when that occurs, the secret enemy throws
off his mask and draws his dagger. --Richard Steele
To say that we have a clear conscience is to utter a solecism; had we
sinned, we should have had no conscience. --Thomas Carlyle
2. Use a semicolon to connect main clauses containing
Think of a comma as a brief pause, a semicolon as a more moderate
and a period as a stop, and you can see the logic of the hierarchy.
In the Samuel Johnson quotation, there is a coordinating conjunction
joining the two sentences, and normally we could use just a comma with
it; but the comma after "useful" might make the syntax less clear if
a comma were used after "vicissitude." So the semicolon clearly
When he faints through desire, she comes to his aid; but when he
she scorns him. --A. C. Hamilton
Whatever is left in the hands of chance must be subject to vicissitude;
and when any establishment is found to be useful, it ought to be the
care to make it permanent. --Samuel Johnson
The events we experience are less important than the meaning we give to
them; for life is about meaning, not experience. --Proverb
After her mother dies through frustrated rage, Parthenia arranges to
Argalus; but Demagoras, seeking revenge, destroys her beauty by a magic
ointment. --A. C. Hamilton
3. Use a semicolon to separate sentence elements of
equal rank when
they contain internal commas.
Prose has become more bald and plain in recent years, so the kind of
balance, and rhythm you sense in the sentences above is less common.
perhaps that is not all for the good. Notice how clear and effective
is in the elaboration of his claim.
The wish of the genuine painter must be more extensive: instead of
to amuse mankind with the minute neatness of his imitations, he must
to improve them by the grandeur of his ideas; instead of seeking
by deceiving the superficial sense of the spectator, he must strive for
fame by captivating the imagination. --Sir Joshua Reynolds
Genius consists in a carefully trained, highly polished ability; a
educated, unbiased good taste; and a willingness to engage in, and a
to do hard work. --Anonymous
They [novels] are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas,
therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles,
therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by
and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account.
First prize was given to Jane Smervitz, Peoria, Illinois; second prize
to Sam Frimpson, Duluth, Minnesota; third prize to Amber Ambleton,
4. Use a semicolon between independent clauses
connected by conjunctive
adverbs. You could, of course, use a period and begin a new
but you would lose the connective effect of the semicolon. (See Use 1,
For a list of conjunctive adverbs, see the Transitions
page. And if you are a beginning writer, do note that the semicolon
not follow the adverb around. In the second sentence here, for example,
the semicolon stays at the division between the sentences, while the
as an interrupter of the syntax (because it has been moved into the
of the sentence), is surrounded by commas.
A given kind of activity produces a corresponding character; therefore,
moral characteristics are formed by actively engaging in particular
--Adapted from Aristotle
The cathedral is in England; the painting, however, is in the United
This project appears to be overwhelming; nevertheless, it can be done.
Beginning students can reel off the words they have heard, but they do
not yet know the subject: the subject must grow to be part of them, and
that takes time; we must, therefore, assume that a man who displays
weakness repeats the formulae of moral knowledge in the same way an
speaks his lines. -- Adapted from Aristotle
5. Use a semicolon between an independent clause and
clause when the clause is not connected by a conjunction
using a comma.
(An elliptical clause has the grammatical force of a sentence, but some
of the words have been left out--and are clearly understood. In the
example, the words "it had" or "there was" are omitted but understood.)
We gave him the medicine; no effect.
We were not careless; just the opposite.
They scored 141 points; our team, 110.
Compare the rhetorical effect of these sentences:
Can you hear, feel, and see the difference? The semicolons produce an
alternating but flowing sense of what might have been. The periods
create a stacatto effect with too much finality at the end of each
sentence. And the commas with coordinating conjunctions create a
numbingly ordinary sentence with the feel of a school-exercise. So,
your takeaway beyond knowledge of semicolon use is that punctuation can powerfully affect
or shape meaning. Would be poets who leave punctuation out
of their work and writers who scoff at the trivialness of thinking
about it are missing something important.
- She would have encouraged him; he would have encouraged
her; neither took the first step.
- She would have encouraged him. He would have encouraged
her. Neither took the first step.
- She would have encouraged him, and he would have
encouraged her, but neither took the first step.
Other Tools for Writers
2000, 2008 by Robert Harris | How
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Harris is a writer
and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the
and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com