Adventures with Punctuation: the Semicolon


“Semicolons are not your workaday periods and commas. They belong to the family of trills and volutes; they exist for the sake of complexity, beauty, subtle connections.” 

So Parul Sehgal writes in her review of Cecilia Watson’s Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. Semicolons tend to elicit strong opinions, with detractors characterizing them as useless and pretentious. I disagree. While they shouldn’t be overused, a thoughtfully placed semicolon can enrich your writing. 

A semicolon on a piece of paper

The semicolon is a unique mark 

A period, I sometimes tell my students, connects two independent clauses, like a bench might bring together two strangers sitting next to one another. The semicolon, though, connects two independent clauses that are related. As a result, I like to think of this punctuation mark as bringing together two friends or family members. Aww! This anthropomorphic analogy may be cheesy, but it does capture how the semicolon subtly suggests a closeness between two sentences. 

Semicolons allow for more expressive writing 

Commas and periods may be the bread and butter of sentence writing, but sometimes it can be good to use the other writing tools at your disposal. Try an em dash, a colon, a pair of parentheses, and, yes, a semicolon. Conjunctions (such as “and,” “but,” “so,” and “yet”) are popular for a reason—they’re versatile connectors!—but occasionally they can interrupt the flow. Writing isn’t simply about conveying a message: it’s also about creating rhythm and aesthetic interest. Sometimes, you want to keep a sentence going, using its length to build rhetorical power. Sometimes, you want a bridge between two pithy but powerful thoughts. The semicolon works well in both cases. 

Semicolons can clarify 

When used as “super commas,” separating items in a list that includes commas, semicolons can serve to clarify potential areas of confusion.

For example, consider the following sentence: “I am inviting John, my former roommate, Sandra, my sister, Bob, Kareem, Su-Min, Jo, my co-worker, Sarah, Ilya, her husband, Colin, and my next door neighbour, Sasha.”

How many people am I inviting? It depends on how you read the sentence, and if you’re not personally familiar with these people, I might be inviting as many as fourteen people or as few as ten. 

Now look at the sentence with semicolons acting as super commas:

“I am inviting John, my former roommate; Sandra, my sister; Bob; Kareem; Su-Min; Jo; my co-worker, Sarah; Ilya, her husband; Colin; and my next door neighbour, Sasha.” 

Much clearer, isn’t it?

So, to recap, semicolons have two main roles:

1. They connect two independent clauses that are related. 

2. They serve as “super commas” in sentences containing many commas. 

Look out for semicolons as you read and try to incorporate them, here and there, in your writing. The more we think about the nuances of language, the more effective our writing will be. 

For more exciting punctuation content, check out this post on colons.

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