This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.
I have always liked the semicolon, the cute ocular half of a winky smiley face. Despite the great confusion it seems to cause many of its would-be users, it is actually a very straightforward punctuation mark. That means that we can do the same thing with semicolons that we did with apostrophes in Apostrophe Use Simplified, which is to identify two easy-to-understand rules that will properly handle nearly every use of a semicolon you will encounter in your writing both professionally and personally. So let’s begin…
Semicolon Usage #1: Separating items in a list that already contains commas.
Recently I was asked to write an article on the proper uses of a comma, a minefield of a topic given both its breadth and the many exceptions to its rules. That being said, nearly everyone understands what is perhaps the comma’s most common use, separating items in a list. (Okay, let’s just address that pesky final comma before the “and” right now. Both “apples, pears and bananas” and “apples, pears, and bananas” are perfectly correct. The latter example uses what is called an Oxford comma, and while I prefer to use it myself, all you need to do is be consistent about either using it or not, and you will be just fine.) So if a comma separates items in a list, why would you need to use a semicolon for the same function? The following example will provide a clear answer:
This year we will travel to Paris, Texas, Athens, Georgia, and Naples, Florida.
Confusing, right? Will this itinerary find us traveling around the southern part of the United States to cities with European names, or traveling back and forth from the southern part of the United States to Europe? (Yes, I admit that would be a strange trip, but it would be interesting.) The point is that when you have a list that already contains commas, using semicolons to separate the complete items in the list will make things clearer for your reader, which in the above example would mean adding semicolons after Texas and Georgia, so you wind up with this:
This year we will travel to Paris, Texas; Athens, Georgia; and Naples, Florida.
Here is what might trip you up: In the above example it is very obvious that there are too many commas. That will not always be the case. Often times, you will need a semicolon to separate main items because some of the items on the list – not necessarily all of them – contain additional comma-delineated information, in which case the need for semicolons may be less clear. Here is an example:
The recommended candidates are Bill, Shawna, my top pick, Raj, and José, who is new to the company.
Granted, it is not very difficult to understand the above sentence, largely because the example is still a simple one. Still, the commas are clearly working overtime and not doing a very good job of separating the items so as to make meaning clear, which is why this is better:
The recommended candidates are Bill; Shawna, my top pick; Raj; and José, who is new to the company.
Simple, right? So let’s move on to…
Semicolon Usage #2: Separating two independent clauses that are closely related in idea.
Whoa! That does not sound simple at all!
An independent clause is simply the correct grammatical term for what you think of as a sentence, and the nice thing about this rule is that it is completely subjective, so if you never want to use it that is fine. If you do, as long as the semicolon joins two complete sentences, at the very least you will not be wrong. So how does it work? Using a semicolon in this case is like saying to your reader, “Stick with me. I have a little more to say about this.” In fact, I could have used a semicolon in that example because the thoughts are closely related, and each is expressed as an independent clause or complete sentence. The main difference between separating independent clauses with periods, which we do nearly all the time, and separating them with semicolons is that the former is a hard stop and the latter is not. Have you ever seenIt’s a Wonderful Life? If so, remember when Ernie reads the telegram at the end? “Mr. Gower cabled you need cash, stop. My office instructed to advance you up to twenty-five thousand dollars, stop.” That is what a period does. It says “stop.” A semicolon, on the other hand, says “more.”
Here is what might trip you up: Sometimes people use commas to separate sentences/independent clauses, in part because they are trying to achieve the exact effect I was just describing, but commas can not ever serve that function correctly. So if you would like to link two thoughts that are expressed in different sentences, take a quick moment to ask yourself if each sentence is complete on its own. If so, use a semicolon to urge your reader on because a period provides a definitive end and a comma is incorrect.
So there it is, two simple rules for how to properly use a semicolon. Let’s take both of them out for one final spin…
The first rule is non-negotiable, but it is easy to master; the second one is a bit trickier, but you can avoid it altogether. (Rule #2 worked well there, don’t you think? But let me try again…) The first rule is non-negotiable, but it is easy to master; the second one is a bit trickier, but you can avoid it altogether; and the third rule is to just use it as the cute ocular half of a winky smiley face. 😉