Punctuation Point: The Semicolon

Some people fear it. Others loathe it. Why is the semicolon so misunderstood? The semicolon is a useful piece of punctuation, allowing the writer to organize a more complex thought into one sentence and the reader to more easily understand that thought. Sometimes called a “supercomma,” the semicolon should be in every writer’s toolbox.

The Basics

The semicolon’s main job is to join two related independent clauses (sentences) together without a conjunction:

Sean loves chocolate cake; it’s the only kind of cake he’ll eat.

Before and after the semicolon are two complete grammatical sentences:

Sean loves chocolate cake.

It’s the only kind of cake he’ll eat.

Either sentence could stand on its own, but I want to show how closely related they are. So I use the semicolon to join the two together.

The semicolon can also be used to separate items in a list when the items contain commas. This helps the reader distinguish between the items:

Between 1815 and 1850 Americans constructed elaborate networks of roads, canals, and early railroad lines; opened up wide areas of newly acquired land for settlement and trade; and began to industrialize manufacturing. (Sean Wilentz, “Society, Politics, and the Market Revolution,” in The New American History 62, as quoted in Garner, 660)

The list in this example is “constructed elaborate networks…,” “opened up wide areas…,” and “began to industrialize manufacturing.” Within the first list item is another list: “roads, canals, and early railroad lines.” The semicolons help the reader keep the information straight.

Let’s Get Fancy

You can join two sentences together with conjunctive adverbs, such as however, indeed, and meanwhile. When you do, use the semicolon to separate the two sentences, not a comma.

Sean will eat only one flavor of cake; however, he will eat several flavors of ice cream.

When a semicolon appears at the end of a phrase in quotation marks, the semicolon goes outside of the quotation marks:

When he eats cake, Duncan likes to sing “I love cake”; Sean doesn’t like to sing while he eats his cake.

Quiz Time!

Think you’ve got it? Try out this quiz. Answers will be posted here on Monday.

Combine the following sentences using either just the semicolon or the semicolon with a conjunctive adverb:

  1. You must help him now. Later your help will be of no value.
  2. Jerry could not play a musical instrument. He could sing beautifully.
  3. I made every effort to get to school on time that morning. The tardy bell had rung when I finally arrived at the door.
  4. Tony has gone to the post office with the mail. He will return soon.

Punctuate the follow sentences with commas or semicolons, as appropriate:

  1. The following band members can play two instruments: Tony Winch trombone and trumpet Harold Davis saxophone and clarinet and Don Patterson drums and string bass.
  2. Mr. Graham frequently gives assignments in current magazines for example a typical assignment would run as follows: the Atlantic 210: 41-46 Senior Scholastic 78: 4 Commonweal 74: 17.
  3. Mrs. Johnson had me revise my composition three times: first, to correct the spelling second, to revise some sentences third, to remove all so’s and so’s.
  4. At the book store I bought the following gifts: a copy of Sandburg’s Complete Poems for my father, a framed print of duck hunters, entitled “In the Blind,” for my uncle and for my sister, a new album called Folksong Favorites.

Sources

Sentences 1-4: Easy English Exercises (1956), 291-292.

Sentences 5-9: English Grammar and Composition (1969), 648-649.

Answers

  1. You must help him now; later your help will be of no value.
  2. Jerry could not play a musical instrument; however, he could sing beautifully.
  3. I made every effort to get to school on time that morning; however, the tardy bell had rung when I finally arrived at the door.
  4. Tony has gone to the post office with the mail; he will return soon.
  5. The following band members can play two instruments: Tony Winch, trombone and trumpet; Harold Davis, saxophone and clarinet; and Don Patterson, drums and string bass.
  6. Mr. Graham frequently gives assignments in current magazines; for example, a typical assignment would run as follows: the Atlantic 210: 41-46; Senior Scholastic 78: 4; Commonweal 74: 17.

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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