Punctuating with Semicolons

Avoiding the Full-Stop of a Period Between Independent Clauses

semicolon
Richard Hodges, The English Primrose (1644). (Fotosearch/Getty Images)

The semicolon (";") is a mark of punctuation most commonly used to separate independent clauses that share the same general idea or ideas, suggesting a closer connection between the clauses than a period does.

English author Beryl Bainbridge described the semicolon as "a different way of pausing, without using a full stop." Semicolons still appear fairly often in academic writing; however, they have fallen out of fashion in less formal kinds of prose — as Associated Press editor Rene Cappon advises, "you would do well to keep semicolons at a minimum."

That said, semicolons can also be used to separate items in a series containing commas to distinguish each item from the next group of items. Learning how to use the semicolon effectively can drastically improve the flow and clarity of a written work.

Rules and Usage

Although contentious in the modern literary world, semicolon usage has a long history of serving a vital purpose in written English, allowing for a flow and eloquence to prose, a rhythm set by variations in punctuation as well as word choice.

The most useful and indeed practical usage rule for semicolons might be its usage to separate items in a list that contains commas. This is especially useful when separating lists of people and their job titles — such as "I met John, the painter; Stacy, the business executive; Sally, the lawyer; and Carl, the Lumberjack at the weekend retreat" — to prevent confusion.

As Irish author Anne Enright put it in Jon Henley's "The End of the Line," the semicolon is also useful "when you need a sentence to shift or surprise; to be modified or amended; it allows a generosity, lyricism, and ambiguity to creep into the sentence structure." Basically, Enright posits that semicolons have their purpose, but should be used with care to avoid seeming self-indulgent or linking too many independent clauses together without giving the reader a break.

The Decline of Semicolons

This idea that semicolons are meant to provide a pause but still link independent clauses together in a piece of writing has all but died out in modern English usage, at least according to some English critics like Donald Barthelme, who describes the punctuation mark as "ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog's belly."

Sam Roberts says in "Seen on the Subway," that "In literature and journalism, to say nothing of advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism. Especially by Americans," wherein "we prefer shorter sentences without, as stylebooks advise, that distinct division between statements that are closely related but require a separation more prolonged than a conjunction and more emphatic than a comma."

Basically, critics across the board argue that the semicolon, though highly useful in scholarly articles and academic papers, are best left to use there and have no usage in modern prose and poetry where they come across as inauthentic and braggadocious.

For creative writers, it's best to leave out the semicolon — or use it sparingly. Kurt Vonnegut famously starts "Here is a Lesson in Creative Writing" with "First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."