Using Semicolons

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 14, 2010


Semicolon use appears to have been declining in recent years, possibly because fewer and fewer people are confident about the proper role of this punctuation mark. Here are several ways to use the semicolon as an effective 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 have a closer relationship to each other than they do to the sentences around them. The semicolon, in a sense, connects the sentences. (If you added a coordinating conjunction and a comma, you would show less of a connection; and with a period you show only the connection of proximity.)

Notice in the first Carlyle example that the two sentences about life and death are connected by a semicolon to join them closer and point up the contrast. Similarly, the next two sentences are also contrasting with each other ("never was a sport" versus "stern reality") and are also joined with semicolons.

2. Use a semicolon to connect main clauses containing internal punctuation. Think of a comma as a brief pause, a semicolon as a more moderate pause, 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 ("and") 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 only a comma were used after "vicissitude." So the semicolon clearly separates the sentences.

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 parallelism, balance, and rhythm you sense in the sentences above is less common. But perhaps that is not all for the good. Notice how clear and effective Reynolds is in the elaboration of his claim.

4. Use a semicolon between independent clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs. You could, of course, use a period and begin a new sentence, but you would lose the connective effect of the semicolon. (See Use 1, above.)

For a list of conjunctive adverbs, see the Transitions page. And if you are a beginning writer, do note that the semicolon does not follow the adverb around. In the second sentence here, for example, the semicolon stays at the division between the sentences, while the "however," as an interrupter of the syntax (because it has been moved into the middle of the sentence), is surrounded by commas.

5. Use a semicolon between an independent clause and an elliptical 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 first example, the words "it had" or "there was" are omitted but understood.)

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.

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com