by Molly Rookwood
Published at 2019-04-16
As an icebreaker activity in one of my publishing courses, a teacher asked us to give our names, what we liked to read for fun, and what our favourite punctuation marks were—something editors are likely to feel strongly about, even if no one else does. Ampersands were praised for their aesthetic appeal, em dashes for their versatility, and the Oxford (or serial) comma for its unfailing commitment to clarity. When it comes to punctuation, my own loyalty lies with perhaps the most often maligned mark of all: the semicolon.
Semicolons are often poorly understood, they are never strictly necessary, and people tend to be as vehemently in favour of or opposed to them as they are to the Oxford comma. Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Do not use semicolons … All they do is show you’ve been to college.” The quote is longer than that, but the rest of it is offensive and dated and I won’t repeat it here. Despite stating his disdain for semicolons as a hard-and-fast rule, Vonnegut breaks it near the beginning of Cat’s Cradle:
“Only I was going to kindergarten; Frank was going to junior high; and Father was going to work on the atom bomb.”
If that sentence looks wrong to you, it’s because it is; the “and” before “Father” means that the second semicolon should, in fact, be a comma.
Personally, I think there’s something distinctly poetic about the semicolon. It identifies a sentence as complete in itself but still unfinished, benefiting from its connection to the sentence that follows. It links two independent clauses together to show that the second one adds to the first; without the second clause, the sentence would be fine, but with the semicolon, its meaning is expanded.
Most errors surrounding the semicolon occur because of a lack of understanding concerning independent clauses. For a clause to be independent, it must function as a sentence on its own. It must have a subject (who the sentence is about) and a predicate (the thing that happens, containing a verb). “He ran” is a complete sentence because it has a subject—“he”—and a predicate—“ran.” Most sentences, of course, have more than this, but these are the basics. To use a semicolon here, we need to add another independent clause: “He ran; she followed.” Now we have more than just the fact that “he ran;” we also have the fact that “she followed.”
Typically, semicolons would be used for longer sentences: “Sidney ran to the store to get baking soda; Kayleigh was baking and had run out.” Both clauses would be fine as sentences, but the flow of ideas becomes more connected with a semicolon than it would be with a period. The semicolon here replaces the word “because”: “Sidney ran to the store to get baking soda because Kayleigh was baking and had run out.”
When writers don’t properly understand the difference between independent and dependent clauses, mistakes get made. If the second part of the sentence sounds like it needs something more to complete it, it probably needs a comma instead of a semicolon. A dependent clause cannot be a sentence on its own and needs to be connected to an independent clause in order to make sense. Here are three correct and two incorrect ways to connect independent clauses:
Correct: Sidney ran to the store to get baking soda; Kayleigh was baking and had run out.
Correct: Sidney ran to the store to get baking soda. Kayleigh was baking and had run out.
Incorrect: Sidney ran to the store to get baking soda, Kayleigh was baking and had run out.
Correct: Sidney ran to the store to get baking soda because Kayleigh was baking and had run out.
Incorrect: Sidney ran to the store to get baking soda; because Kayleigh was baking and had run out.
In the third sentence, the comma is trying to join independent clauses, and should be replaced by a semicolon. In the final sentence, “because Kayleigh was baking and had run out” cannot be a sentence by itself; it is a dependent clause and therefore cannot follow a semicolon.
Another way to correctly use a semicolon is in lists in which an abundance of commas obscures meaning. Consider this sentence:
“Sidney went to the store to buy baking soda, a white powder used for baking, toothpaste, a tool for cleaning teeth, vanilla, a substance to sweeten food, tarragon, a delicious herb, and chocolate.”
Although you can be pretty sure which parts of that sentence connect to which, there’s a chance that Sidney is buying both toothpaste and a separate tool for cleaning her teeth. Fortunately, we can add in semicolons to clear things up:
“Sidney went to the store to buy baking soda, a white powder used for baking; toothpaste, a tool for cleaning teeth; vanilla, a substance to sweeten food; tarragon, a delicious herb; and chocolate.”
By inserting semicolons into the list, it becomes perfectly clear that the “white powder” describes “baking soda,” that “toothpaste” is the “tool for cleaning teeth,” and so on.
I once worked with an author who insisted that an English teacher had told him that the word “however” always had to follow a semicolon in a sentence. This is sometimes true, but certainly not always. As I’ve discussed above, if “however” forms the beginning of an independent clause, it must follow a semicolon or begin a new sentence. For example:
“Sidney went to the store to buy baking soda; however, the store had run out.”
Because “However, the store had run out” could be a sentence on its own, the semicolon is warranted. In a sentence like this one, however, a semicolon is incorrect:
“Sidney was determined to buy baking soda; however much it might cost.”
“However much it might cost” is not a complete sentence, and therefore the semicolon in the above sentence should be a comma instead.
Despite widespread authorial hatred, semicolons are, like any other punctuation mark, something to aid and clarify your writing. They can be used to link ideas and to help keep items of a list separate. They should neither be feared nor despised, and, if not overused, can help keep your ideas flowing cohesively and elegantly.
For more thoughts on the semicolon, read Claire Fallon’s article for the Huffington Post from March 12, 2015, “Semicolons: How To Use Them, And Why You Should.”
Be sure to check out our collection of language and editing blogs for more helpful tips! https://www.theeditingco.com/blog/language-editing