The Semicolon Isn’t Really That Scary

Semicolons, in my humble opinion, are the best punctuation mark in a writer’s arsenal. Okay, maybe that’s bold, but it is my favorite. Something feels so good when I create the perfect sentence for a semicolon, not quite cutting off that first thought, but letting the second one stand on its own, too. Like the exclamation point, the semicolon is best used sparingly, but even with all of its redeeming qualities, I find people still don’t use them often. Maybe it’s because they don’t really know how to use it, or they think it’s too antiquated.

But come on, guys. It’s such a good mark.

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I find that I use the semicolon when I really want to draw attention to what I’m saying. I want the heft of the words to weigh down the whole sentence. I want you, the reader, to feel what this sentence is carrying, the weight of the message it is trying to share with you.

So, after that, when exactly do you use a semicolon?

Two independent clauses

The semicolon links two related but independent clauses. Both have importance, but you don’t want to split them up into their own separate sentences or use a conjunction to soften them. For a simple example, you could say, “I like cats; my boyfriend likes dogs.” Related, but separate.

With “However”

Anytime you use “however” as a conjunctive adverb, it needs to be preceded by a semicolon. It drives me insane when I see, “I like kittens, however, I don’t like puppies.” No, that is not right. If you want to use “however” like that, then the thought needs to be rewritten in its entirety: “I like kittens. I don’t, however, like puppies.”

Lists

No, it never introduces a list, but it can help you separate out your thoughts if you’ve got a rather lengthy list or internal punctuation in that list.

You would never say, “Of all the cities I have been to, my favorites are; Los Angeles, California, New York, New York, and Portland, Oregon.”

Typically if you’re listing things off, if they’re complex clauses or already contain internal punctuation, a semicolon can help to distinguish the items in the list (“Of all the cities I have been to, my favorites are: Los Angeles, California; New York, New York; and Portland, Oregon.) You’ll probably see this more in academic writing than in creative writing, but sometimes you just end up with an unruly list in a creative piece.

Guys, don’t be scared of the semicolon; she won’t bite. In fact, she only wants to help you push your sentence further. Don’t cop out with an 18th comma if a semicolon would work perfectly. We overuse the “…, but…” structure, so why not try switching out one of those for a semicolon next time?

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