A Question of Grammar – Semicolon

semicolonEverywhere I go these days I see one. My eyes can barely glance at a piece of fiction without one of them being there. Talk about being in vogue! I’m almost beginning to worry whether I should publish any more writing without this year’s grammatical must have. I am of course talking about the oft lamented but now simply irresistible semicolon. It’s getting to the stage that I now come across them so often I genuinely wonder whether people are putting them in for the sake of it. Are they all really needed? If in doubt put one in seems to be the mantra for writers in 2013. Well I confess I’m not totally sure when to use them. There will be others out there like me embarrassed to admit they are semicolon ignorant. If you’re one of those then be ignorant  no longer. When should you use one? When shouldn’t you? What is the point? Time to find out.

Let’s first get a couple of definitions:

While terminal marks (i.e., full stops, exclamation marks, and question marks) mark the end of a sentence, the comma, semicolon and colon are normally sentence internal, making them secondary boundary marks. The semicolon falls between terminal marks and the comma; its strength is equal to that of the colon

In other words:

The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop.

Yes, yes. “Examples, examples” I hear you cry. Well, if I’m reading this correctly there appears to be two main uses for the semicolon.

1.Between items in a series or listing containing internal punctuation, especially parenthetic commas, where the semicolons function as serial commas

To you and me this means sentences which already have punctuation such as commas i.e.

The report concluded the following: 76% of surveyed firms monitor employee Web-surfing activities, with 65% blocking access to unauthorized Internet locations; 57% monitor employee telephone behaviour, including the inappropriate use of voice-mail.

2. Between closely related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction:

Again to you and me this suggest sentences where we don’t use words like “and” or “but” to join two closely linked pieces of text i.e.

At the sales I spent £20my brother spent over £50.

In this example you could use two sentences as both elements stand independently. However, as they are related pieces of information the briefer pause given by a semicolon makes it read better.

For more info check out the following links:


http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon (This is particularly excellent!)

Well, after writing that I am a bit clearer. Hope you are too!

4 thoughts on “A Question of Grammar – Semicolon

  1. Endless Edits

    the stuff i’ve heard for people wishing to be published is that you should avoid use of the semicolon (unless you are a grammatical genius) otherwise you’ll probably overuse it and agents don’t like excessive use of anything. whenever Word tells me a semicolon is necessary i go ahead and either make two sentences or reword the original. i am no grammatical protege so i stay clear of things that turn up agent noses. 😛

    1. paulmclem Post author

      Interesting. I certainly find them very jarring. In an academic text or a list in a fictional piece you might expect to see them more. Still think there is a fad at the moment to use them. Like you I’ll probably stick to two short, snappy sentences rather than a ;

  2. RAM

    Hillary Mantel is a master semi-colon user – read Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies to see what is possible when you tune out the noise of rules and advice and write the way you want.

    1. paulmclem Post author

      Heh, it’s always fun when an old post gets a comment. Have to say I would never have wrote this piece if I’d known what I know now. Hopefully, my usage of semi-colon’s has advanced somewhat from when I wrote this. Thanks for the hint about Hilary Mantel, I’ll check her out.


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