Saturday, 27 August 2011

How to use semicolons correctly

The semicolon is a really useful piece of punctuation for both the writer and the reader. It isn't too difficult to understand, but many people still either get it wrong or avoid using it altogether.

When do we use a semicolon?
There are only two main uses: 

  1. When writing convoluted lists; and
  2. When separating two closely-related, but independent, clauses.

1. When writing convoluted lists
Lists can sometimes get very messy. Take a look at this example:
Teachers attending the PTA meeting are Al Gebra, mathematics, Cliff Fields, geography, Bea Bygones, history, Ken Mistry, science and Germaine French, languages.

Using semicolons helps to separate the information:
Teachers attending the PTA meeting are Al Gebra, mathematics; Cliff Fields, geography; Bea Bygones, history; Ken Mistry, science and Germaine French, languages.

2. When separating two related, but independent, clauses
There are two rules here:

  • Both clauses must be connected to each other; but
  • The first clause and the second clause must make sense independently of each other. If you can put a full stop where the semicolon is and both sentences still make sense, then you're on the right track.
Here is a correct example:
Tom still had a long way to go; the road into town seemed never-ending.

This is correct because both clauses are closely connected to Tom's journey, but you can read and understand either clause without having read the other.
Tom still had a long way to go. 
The road into town seemed never-ending.

Here is an incorrect example:
The dog liked to run around the park; his favourite toy was a yellow squeaky ball.
The semicolon doesn't work here because the clauses are not closely connected. The dog liking to run around the park has no relevance to his favourite toy.

To make it work we could write it like this:
The dog liked to run around and play fetch with his toys in the park; his favourite toy was a yellow squeaky ball.

Here is another incorrect example:
Jane enjoyed eating strawberries and cream; they always reminded her of summer.
The semicolon can't be used here because the second clause doesn't make sense without the first one.

To use the semicolon correctly we could write it like this:
Jane enjoyed eating strawberries and cream; the strawberries always reminded her of summer.

If you need any guidance on using semicolons, please post your question in the comments and I'll do my best to help you.

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