Semicolons have two functions: First, they are used to separate items in lists when one or more of those items has internal commas. As such, they function more or less like commas on steroids.
In their second function, however, they are more like periods because they connect two independent clauses.
To use semicolons appropriately in this second context, we have to know the difference between dependent and independent clauses.
Therein lies the rub.
How’s Your Semicolon Savvy?
Which of these sentences use the semicolon appropriately?
- America has much to accomplish; more than we sometimes realize.
- The conference speakers were Jane Doe, president of Cyberpro Corporation; Jim Smith, superintendent of Richfield School District One; and John Doe, president of Southland Technical College.
- America has much to accomplish, however, we also have much to gain.
- The titles that medical paraprofessionals are given may differ; the complexity of their duties is the same, however.
Sentences 2 and 4 are correct.
Between Items in a List, Semicolons Are Like Strong Commas
Sentence 2 is correct because it uses the semicolon to separate items in a series when one or more of those items have commas within them (the “comma on steroids” function).
The comma is the weaker separator of the two. Because we have used commas to separate each speaker’s name from that person’s title, the semicolon is necessary for clarity—to separate one unit of information from another.
Between Clauses, Semicolons Are Like Periods
Remember that a clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb; an independent clause is one that can stand alone as a sentence. When we have two independent clauses, as we have in sentence 4, we have choices about how to connect them.
Here are some examples that maintain the status of both independent clauses. (We could also make one of the two clauses dependent, but that’s a discussion for another post.) In each case, the independent clauses are bracketed:
- [The titles that medical paraprofessionals are given may differ]; [the complexity of their duties is the same, however].
- [The titles that medical paraprofessionals are given may differ]; [however, the complexity of their duties is the same].
- [The titles that medical paraprofessionals are given may differ]; [the complexity of their duties is the same].
- [The titles that medical paraprofessionals are given may differ], but [the complexity of their duties is the same].
To use a comma alone (without the but) between these independent clauses would be to create the error that grammarians call the comma splice: the two independent clauses would be “spliced” (i.e., joined) when they need to be separated structurally. The comma is too weak to do that job without the help of one of the seven coordinating conjunctions, and, but, or, nor, for, so, or yet. The sentence, then, requires the stronger semicolon.
Grammatically, a period would work just as well as a semicolon between two independent clauses, but in a paragraph of sentences, the semicolon tells the reader that the two independent clauses being joined by the semicolon are closely related in meaning. A semicolon is one more strategy in the writer’s toolbox for helping readers follow the logical flow of ideas.
It Pays to Know Your Conjunctions
Conjunctions provide another strategy for helping a reader understand the relationship between the ideas presented in clauses.
Sentence 3 contains two independent clauses with a conjunction between them: the word however, which is an adverbial conjunction (a.k.a. conjunctive adverb), not a coordinating conjunction. The word however says that the ideas expressed in these two clauses contrast one another.
(Note: In sentence 4, however functions simply as an adverb, not as a conjunction between the clauses, but it nonetheless helps the reader to know the relationship between the two clauses.)
We have only seven coordinating conjunctions (listed above), but we have a longer list of conjunctive adverbs. The list includes however, nevertheless, otherwise, furthermore, moreover, also, then, thus, and so forth. (Note: although and though are not conjunctive adverbs, though they are often confused as such. They instead mark dependent clauses that cannot stand alone.)
Clauses Joined by Semicolons Need to Be Logically Related
To use a semicolon well, we have to think about the meaning being conveyed in each clause.
Consider this sentence:
- Reproduction is a characteristic of all living systems; because no individual organism lives forever, reproduction is essential to the continuation of every species.
Here we have three clauses, two independent clauses and one dependent clause. Some writers might be tempted to place the semicolon after forever. But to put it there would be inappropriate: the subordinating conjunction because creates (and introduces) a dependent clause that modifies the verb in the second main clause: it tells why “reproduction is essential.”
The actual juncture between two independent clauses, therefore, occurs after the first independent clause, “Reproduction is a characteristic of all living systems.” The semicolon is required after systems because that is the point in the sentence where we need strong logical and structural separation.
The Semicolon Is Having a Moment
Several of our subscribers and participants in our seminars have sent us links to reviews of a new book about usage that is giving the semicolon its well-deserved day in the sun.
Author Cecelia Watson wisely reminds us that writing is an art; the best writers know the rules but also know when and how to break them. Here’s a link to a work that promises to be a delightful read:
The semicolon is often used as an image of hope, particularly in the design of jewelry and the titles of books. In contrast with the period, which provides a full stop, the semicolon suggests that the story goes on and serves as an apt metaphor for a life that endures beyond tragedy or great change.
Check the punctuation in each of these sentences:
- Runners know they cannot win races unless they train regularly; something they may find increasingly difficult to do.
- It is not always easy to act on what one knows is right, it is even more difficult, though, to look in the mirror if one refuses to act.
- John has a serious problem; although we hope to help him, there is no certainty that he will do his part in the effort.
- Many companies have suffered in the wake of a sluggish U.S. economy, in the event of a recession, however, a number of them will be forced to close their doors.
- Runners know they cannot win races unless they train regularly, [comma, not semicolon, needed] something they may find increasingly difficult to do.
- It is not always easy to act on what one knows is right; [semicolon, not comma, needed] it is even more difficult, though, to look in the mirror if one refuses to act.
- John has a serious problem; [semicolon correct] although we hope to help him, there is no certainty that he will do his part in the effort.
- Many companies have suffered in the wake of a sluggish U.S. economy; [semicolon, not comma, needed] in the event of a recession, however, a number of them will be forced to close their doors.
Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2019.