Friday, March 30, 2012

Common Problems (Part 43 of 50)

Use the semicolon properly. This punctuation mark is all-but-gone from modern writing. I like it because the semicolon and I have written together since eighth grade. Today we tend to write shorter sentences and don't need the semicolon.

But if you insert the semicolon use it properly. Some call it the supercomma. It has two uses.

1. After a colon and a list. Example: He owns stock in several places: Paris, Texas; London, Ontario; and Berlin, Wisconsin. Without semicolons readers won't know if you mean three locations or six.

2. The semicolon functions like a soft period to join two closely connected sentences. Thus both parts must have a subject and a predicate. Example: I like your floppy, silly hat; I don't like your high-heeled shoes.

I often write pithy sayings (aphorisms) and use the semicolon because the two statements are closely bound to each other: I am passionately involved in the process; I am emotionally detached from the result. A period or a comma would work and most readers aren't aware of the difference. But I am aware; therefore, I use the semicolon. (Did you notice the punctuation in the previous sentence?)

* Many times he’d imagined this day; thought about how it would go. (There is no subject in the second clause. Use a conjunction and a comma.)

* Guiding at the helm as we crossed a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, watching flying fish buzz above the waves, snorkeling with giant sea turtles; and an endless variety of fish and coral. (Why a semicolon? The sentence contains 34 words; for modern readers, that's too many. I'd suggest making two sentences and no semicolon.)

* Give us the freedom to choose; life with God or life without God. (Again, it's incorrect. I'd use a colon after choose.) 

Unless you're positive you know how to use the semicolon, 


  1. Thank you for this! I definitely have some editing to do!

  2. I'm confused about this example:
    I am passionately involved in the process; I am emotionally detached from the result.

    You say a period would work too, but wouldn't we need a "but" or an "and" before it?

  3. Nicole,

    Yes, and you would use BUT to show the contrast.
    However, many writers put two independent clauses together without a conjunction.


What are your thoughts?