Constructed of a period and a comma, the semicolon can perform both tasks.
A comma gives your reader pause, but not one long enough to take a breath. A semicolon allows someone reading aloud to take a breath because what follows the semicolon is related.
A period brings a sentence to a full stop. When the semicolon appears between related, complete sentences, it performs as a period, but it ties the second sentence to the first.
When creating lists or sequences inside a sentence, a semicolon is more powerful than a comma. If portions of your sequence require commas, a semicolon is a must.
Jerry was on the hunt for a royalty-free image of dragons, fairies and trolls; a graphic generator with 3-D capability; and an audio mixing program which would allow him to edit, crop and overlay the soundtrack for the trailer.
Marta knew she needed to go to the grocery for eggs, milk and flour; buy the party supplies; bake three blueberry pies; and be back in time to receive the children from the school bus.
Transitional phrases and conjunctive adverbs also demand a semicolon, as many are followed by a comma. Common transitional phrases and conjunctive adverbs:
- as a result of
- on the other hand
- in addition
- after all
- in other words
The first portion of the sentence is complete; however, the second part is related.
Semicolons save manuscripts from fragments, comma splices, fused sentences and run-on sentences.
Fragment: John was overly anxious. Couldn’t sit still in the waiting room.
Solution: John was overly anxious; he could not sit still in the waiting room.
The addition of the subject to the second sentence corrects the fragment. The semicolon joins the two sentences.
Comma slice: Petunia rutted in the flowerbed, she was after fresh grubs.
Solution: Petunia rutted in the flowerbed; she was after fresh grubs.
A comma is insufficient to join two complete sentences. Use a semicolon instead.
Fused sentence: The water rose three feet it covered the road.
Solution: The water rose three feet; it covered the road.
A fused sentence is two or more sentences with no punctuation or conjunction between them.
Run-on sentence: Carl was too busy to stop for lunch and he had to go to gym pick up his wife then go home to change and he had to get them to the airport in time.
Solution 1: Carl was too busy for lunch. He had to go to the gym, pick up his wife and go home to change; he had to get them to the airport in time.
Solution 2: Carl was too busy for lunch; he had to go to the gym, pick up his wife, go home to change and get them to the airport in time.
The first solution breaks the run-on into two distinct parts: one complete sentence and one complex sentence.
The second solution drops one subject to create one complex sentence.
Joining two sentences with a semicolon offers writers the ability to add more detail to a sentence. By either associating the character with the setting or explaining emotional responses without breaking point of view, a semicolon joining related sentences provides continuity to the story line.
The stony cliff towered above him; Paul considered climbing to the outcropping a victory over his acrophobia.
Carla found herself captivated by the painting; the strong brushstrokes of color resembled her tumultuous emotions.
Errors and Exceptions
As with all punctuation, when used improperly, a semicolon will convey the wrong message to the reader.
Sequence: Semicolons cannot combine sentences which are separate portions of an action sequence.
Victor settled into the berth for a nap; hours later, he arose to seek out the dining car.
The second portion of the sentence is an unrelated event. A period should be used in place of the semicolon
Fragments: Semicolons may not combine complete sentences with fragments.
Quinna was dizzy from heat exhaustion; making her nauseated.
The portion after the semicolon in this example is a fragment. To correct this sentence, add a subject and change the verb to the correct tense.
Verb tense: Semicolons do not allow for time travel.
Chris wants to fly jet fighters; he had taken a pilot’s course three years ago.
Both sentences must be in the same verb tense to be connected by a semicolon. To correct this sentence, change one verb so both are in the same tense or replace the semicolon with a period.
Exception 1: When simple sentences are of equal weight and structure, a comma is sufficient.
I came, I saw, I conquered.
The comma emphasizes the similarity of the sentences. When the sentences are slightly different, choose a semicolon.
One is clear; the other is merely translucent.
Exception 2: A comma can separate a statement from a tag question.
They are simply darling, aren’t they?
She can come to the party, can’t she?
Semicolons are not used before coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet) when linking sentences (independent clauses). Semicolons are used before coordinating conjunctions when separating elements containing commas.
Occasionally, a semicolon is appropriate before a coordinating conjunction when there is a stark contrast between the independent clauses. This is most common with but, nor and yet.
Jockeys are generally affable and talkative; but as race time nears, they fall silent and contemplative.
The semicolon is indicative of formal or literary writing. Do not overuse it. Often, it is better to edit prose according to rules of subordination or split into separate and/or simpler sentences.
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