Semicolons are tricky pieces of punctuation, so they’re often misused. This is a shame because once you understand them a bit, they’re not so intimidating. In this piece, we’re going to look at what they are and how you can use them well.
Table of Contents
- What is the semicolon?
- How is the semicolon used?
- 5 examples of how to use the semicolon
What is the semicolon?
The semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark. A formal definition is that it is used between two independent clauses. This will make more sense in the next section.
How is the semicolon used?
A semicolon is equal in power to the period. Anywhere you see a period, you can replace it with a semicolon (and vice-versa) and your writing will still be grammatically correct.
There isn’t a grammar rule that governs when to use a semicolon. Rather, it’s a matter of style.
You should use a semicolon when the ideas in two sentences (but really two independent clauses) are so connected that they should be in the same sentence.
Let’s look at some examples.
5 examples of how to use the semicolon
Here are some simple examples:
- David is quiet; his twin brother is talkative.
- I love steak; my partner prefers salmon.
- Tuesday is a busy day at the park; it’s not a good time to go there.
In all of these examples, a semicolon is appropriate because the two ideas are closely related and should be in the same sentence. The way I think of it is that different punctuation marks make me pause for different amounts of time while I’m reading. A period is a long pause. A comma and semicolon are shorter pauses. When two ideas are closely connected, a shorter pause is more natural, so a semicolon works better.
Let’s now look at an example from published writing. I’m currently reading the book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. The author, Oliver Burkeman, writes:
On one occasion, I tried scheduling the whole of every day in fifteen-minute blocks; on another, I used a kitchen timer to work exclusively in periods of twenty-five minutes, interspersed with five-minute breaks.
He’s giving two examples of time management techniques he tried. The ideas are similar; he wants you to move quickly from one to the next, so he uses a semicolon instead of a period. (Notice my use of a semicolon as well 😉)
One more example from Burkeman:
I don’t think the feeling of anxiety ever completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations.
Again, he uses the semicolon because wants to keep the ideas in each sentence closer together. If he used a period instead, there would be more of a break between them.
The good news is that you never need a semicolon. Remember, you can always just use a period!
In English, semicolons are rare, so I wouldn’t recommend investing a bunch of time trying to master them. As you’re reading and you come across one, just take a moment to understand why it works in the sentence. You’ll soon be able to see the patterns and start using them in your own writing.
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