Semicolons Explained

            People often ask writers and editors if they have a favorite punctuation mark. For me, the answer the semicolon. The reason why I like semicolons so much is how useful it can be. This punctuation is all about creating clarity and emphasis in complex or confusing sentences. Here are a few ways you can use semicolons in your writing.

            One common and very useful function of the semicolon is to create clarity in complex lists. Sometimes commas simply don’t cut it; they create more confusion than clarity. In those situations, the semicolon can come to the rescue. Here is one example of how this function works: I’ve visited Seattle, Wa.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Boston, Ma. The commas that separate the cities from the states are necessary, but the commas for the series make everything much more confusing. Replacing those commas with semicolons clears everything up. One note about this usage is that there is always a semicolon before the conjunction. You can’t omit it the same way you would with the Oxford comma.

            This usage also works for lists that are just plain long. The extra emphasis from the semicolon can help make it clear what counts as one item in the list. You can also use the semicolon for lists within a list (talk about a complex sentence). They can separate each list, similar to how the semicolons separate the city/state combinations in the example above.

            Another function of the semicolon is separating independent clauses, either with or without the assistance of a coordinating conjunction. The semicolon creates a more pronounced pause, which is helpful when connecting multiple clauses. The longer pause also allows the semicolon to stand alone if needed and create a different emphasis than a comma would. I notice this usage most often in classical literature and news articles. For your average novel, the comma tends to do just fine, especially since sentences aren’t usually as complex.

            Before leaving this usage, I will mention that semicolons can be used with words such as “therefore” or “however.” When these words are attached to the second independent clause in a complex sentence, you can replace the first comma with a semicolon. Just don’t forget to follow the word with a comma. Also don’t assume that the word needs a semicolon every time. You have to be aware of context and make sure it belongs to only one, separate independent clause.

            The third usage for semicolons isn’t a particular function; it’s more a style per se. You can use semicolons to create emphasis and add meaning to your writing. It isn’t all that different from the way you would use commas to imply your meaning. Instead of turning to commas, you can use the longer pause from the semicolon to your advantage.

            In addition, readers often think of the semicolon as more scholarly, which is probably why there aren’t too many to be found on social media sites or fiction works. Because of this perception, you can change the tone of your writing. You can also use the semicolon occasionally to replace an em dash. That is especially useful if you’re writing is gaining enough em dashes to rival Emily Dickinson’s. The semicolon won’t be as emphatic or distracting as the em dash for your readers.

            Writers might not use semicolons as often in their writing, but that does not mean that the punctuation mark isn’t an important tool. Semicolons can create emphasis and bring clarity to your writing, depending on where you place them or what combination of words you use. They can be your friend when writing about complex topics by making it easier for your readers to understand your point.

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