The Final Word on Semicolons

SemicolonDeep down in the bowels of English syntax there are convoluted, academic applications of semicolons; there are just two that you will ever use.

An independent sentence is a complete, stand-alone sentence. The first use of semicolons is to connect two independent sentences where the second sentence enhances or closely relates to the first.

It looks like it’s going to rain. The picnic will be ruined.

These are two independent, complete sentences that stand alone just fine. However, reading them in tandem, don’t they kinda sound like they should be together?

It looks like it’s going to rain; the picnic will be ruined.

They’re a single thought and are better written with a semicolon than a period, and, consequently, with a lower case start to the second sentence.

Some grammartarians will note that semicolons can be used between independent clauses that are connected by conjunctive adverbs—whatever the hell that is.

But those people have a hard time explaining what they mean; as a result, they are largely ignored.

Sorry, but those look like two sentences to me. I’d call it a push.

At one time, an accomplished author wrote, “It is improper to ever write a sentence fragment. Ever.” The ironic illustration is that practicing writers—authors—can take liberties, but wait until your sufficiently recognized that you can quit your day job before striking out as a rebel.

  • Never use semicolons as commas
  • Never separate dialogue from attribution with a semicolon

 

The second legitimate and common use of semicolons is in lists where some of the elements of the list have commas themselves.

There are two ways to publish your book: entice an agent, sell your manuscript to a mega-publisher, and get pennies per copy; or work with a boutique publisher, personal editor and cover artist, and make half the proceeds of each sale.

Normally, a comma would separate each item on a list. In this case, the semicolon makes it clear that there are two groups of linked items.

 

Bottom line: After familiarizing yourself with these two uses of semicolons, if you’re not sure, don’t use one.

 

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