When do you use a semicolon? I confess I never have been totally clear on it. As a fan of the short, concise, Hemingway-esque sentence; as an over-user of the em dash, a lover of the hard stop; as someone who might be accused of misusing commas, ellipses and the like; I have never found many semicolons in my writing.
Apparently, this makes me a rube.
According to the Writer’s Handbook, an online grammar and usage resource offered by the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin, semicolons “help you connect closely related ideas when a style mark stronger than a comma is needed.” In fact, it is recommended that you flex your pectoral muscles when applying a semicolon.
“By using semicolons effectively,” the Writer’s Handbook contends, “you can make your writing sound more sophisticated.”
I want to sound more sophisticated; I should start using more semicolons. And I guess I should make sure I’m using them correctly. An incorrect semicolon would be deemed positively undignified by the editors of the Writer’s Handbook.
Rules for Using Semicolons (Researched while craving Asian cuisine)
A semicolon is most commonly used to link — in a single sentence — two or more independent clauses that are closely related.
In some Asian cultures, people eat with chopsticks; in others they eat with their hands.
A semicolon is often used between two independent clauses that are connected by conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases.
But however they choose to eat, people are allowed to make their own decisions; as a result, many people swear by their own eating methods.
Use a semicolon between items in a list or series if any of the items contain commas.
There are basically two ways to eat sushi: with your hands, which is totally acceptable in the finest restaurants in Tokyo; or with chopsticks, which takes a little practice.
Use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction if the clauses are already punctuated with commas or if the clauses are lengthy. (This rule gives me a headache.)
Some people eat with a fork, knife and spoon; but others, for different reasons, choose to eat with their fingers or chopsticks.
A Couple of Semicolon Don’ts
Don’t use a comma when a semicolon is needed:
Incorrect: The salmon is pink, it is also old.
Correct: The salmon is pink; it is also old.
Incorrect: I like tuna, however, I hate the way it smells.
Correct: I like tuna; however, I hate the way it smells.
Also, avoid using a semicolon when a comma is needed:
Incorrect: Because the tuna smells; it offends me.
Correct: Because tuna stinks, it offends me.
By Kevin Hyde, Content Writer, Capture Higher Ed