The semicolon is a punctuation mark rarely used by most people, and probably the least understood of standard punctuation marks in the English language. Yet it’s my personal favorite among punctuation because of the way it can tie ideas together. I love it so much that I sometimes overuse it in my creative writing and have to force myself to dial it back a bit.
So here’s why I love it in two sections: one for formal writing and one for informal writing. But first, let’s cover what it is and what it does.
What is a Semicolon?
It looks like a cross between a comma and a colon, which should give you a clue as to how it’s used.
Most punctuation marks – like periods, question marks, and exclamation marks – put an end to an expressed thought. Whatever follows it expected to be a separate thought. Commas, on the other hand, provide much less of a separation; expressions separated by a comma are closely related.
Colons are used to show how one thought leads to another. Perhaps most commonly, the expressions after a colon are subcategories within the category expressed before the colon. Another common use is that the expression before a colon is a setup, and the expression after the colon is the reveal or payoff.
Semicolons lie somewhere in-between commas and colons. Two expressions separated by a semicolon are closely related (much like commas), and often the first of those expressions leads to another (much like colons). Let’s take a look at a couple great ways to use a semicolon.
Uses of a Semicolon
For this post, we’re only considering how a semicolon links two clauses.
A semicolon could be used when the second expression expands upon the first. For example: No one has been in that house for decades; it was declare haunted after the last inhabitants left!
A period followed by a transitional adjective (or sometimes a comma followed by a conjunction) can often be replaced with a semicolon. Two clauses related by purpose, result, reason, concession, or possibly even manner (learn more about Adverbial Clauses) might be written with a semicolon between them. For example: She couldn’t see a thing; the lights had all blown out! The second expression explains the first.
Semicolons can also be used between two expressions of the same thought expressed in different ways. For example: I had no idea you were back in town; I thought your trip lasted another couple of days.
Or how about this: a semicolon can be used to express two sides to the same coin, so to speak. For example: I’m not a fan of chocolate; I’d prefer vanilla.
Another way to think of it is that in order to express a thought that has two different aspects to it, you might want to use a semicolon.
Formal and Casual
Quality formal writing involves connecting thoughts together in appropriate ways, often using connections more interesting (or perhaps more meaningful) than a comma with a coordinating conjunction. Semicolons are a great way to add variety into the transitions between expressions.
Reports, essays, scientific articles, and so forth regularly require that the writer expands upon their ideas, defends them, specifies them, expresses them from different standpoints, or even repeats their points with different wording. Semicolons can do all of these.
In terms of casual writing, I’m a fan of writing the way we speak, especially for creative writing. (If you pay close attention, you might notice that reading something aloud doesn’t sound as natural as speaking freely, and a transcript doesn’t look as composed as a well-written article; when trying to emulate natural speech, my writing my look a little different from the norm). Because we generally speak following a train-of-thought, expressions tend to flow easily from one idea to the next. We don’t technically use punctuation when we speak, but if we did, most of us would use semicolons quite frequently.
Since semicolons are both very useful and reflect natural train-of-thought, I highly encourage you to find ways to use them in your own writings, and teach your students to do the same.