I don't think there is a punctuation mark as misused, misunderstood, and poorly treated as the semicolon.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Used properly, semicolons help writers show connections between related thoughts and separate lists into clear chunks.
This post is an effort to break down the ways that semicolons can add clarity and nuance to your writing without the need to break out in a cold sweat as doubt and fear creep in.
Semicolons are nowhere near as common as full stops and commas, and this represents an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
The two main ways I use semicolons are when I have something more to say and when I’m breaking down complicated lists.
Something More to Say
Semicolons are often used instead of full stops when you have something more to say.
Used this way, they are a gentle nudge for your reader to pause and reflect before moving on to the rest of a sentence. That can be particularly powerful when what follows offers a deeper emphasis or gives the reader food for thought after what came before.
A full stop suggests that a point is done and dusted and what follows is a fresh start, moving a paragraph on from one point to the next. Readers are left to make their own minds up on how sentences within a paragraph connect.
Semicolons suggest a connection between clauses. In fact, they require one. Semicolons show readers that what follows is related to what came before; consider each side in relation to the other.
The clauses need to be both closely connected and grammatically complete. They are stronger pauses than commas but not as firm as full stops, and this is the type of nuance that separates great writing from good writing.
The semicolon is a powerful tool; don’t let fear hold you back from using it.
Semicolons are also an excellent way to break up lists nestled within paragraphs.
This is especially useful when breaking up detailed lists. Semicolons help readers stay on top of what’s going on and prevent them from losing track.
Commas are more common and work well to separate items in simple lists. The downside of using commas for this is that you can no longer use commas elsewhere without throwing the whole list out of whack. Reaching for the semicolon is a shrewd move as it keeps your options open, but it does feel a bit unnecessary for simple lists.
Avoid These Mistakes
Don’t capitalise the first letter that comes after a semicolon unless it’s a proper noun that would be capitalised in the sentence anyway.
Don’t use a conjunction after a semicolon. Choose one or the other, not both.
You don’t need both sides of the semicolon to agree with each other, but you do need to make sure that there is a logical connection.
Each clause must form a complete sentence in its own right.
Do not use them to join subordinate clauses that rely on each other to make sense, use commas for this instead.
Keep in mind that it's possible to overdo it, so use your semicolon powers in moderation.
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