A device that stumps even the most experinced of writers.
Some fear it; others see it as a challenge.
I am an example of the latter.
I’ll go ahead and admit it: semicolons can be tricky. There’s a valid reason as to why writers tend to stay away from them. However, their reasoning isn’t that semicolons themselves are tricky; it’s that differentiating the semicolon from the regular colon and comma is tricky.
Already confused? Don’t worry, this entire post will be focused on breaking it down for you.
To start off, you should know that—unlike most of the punctuation out there—there isn’t ever really a time when semicolons are necessary. I mean, you’ve probably gone your entire life thus far without using a semicolon. That’s kind of proof enough that it isn’t necessary. However, there are a three reasons as to why you should use a semicolon:
- When a sentence calls for a semicolon, you can’t replace it with some other punctuation. Semicolons are unique, and it just won’t work (or work as well). You could always change the sentence so that it doesn’t need a semicolon… but you’d still need to understand the semicolon to do that.
- Semicolons can be very poetic. I’m not saying they’re always poetic or necessary in writing poetry, but they can definitely expand the possibilities of your writing and style,
- Your teachers will be impressed. Seriously. How many people in the world do you think know how to properly use a semicolon? The only people I know with that knowledge are top English students or English teachers. My parents are brilliant, and even they have no clue!
If you still don’t care to know how to use semicolons…
… Why are you still here?
Seriously, this entire post is about using semicolons. Nothing else. If you don’t want to know about semicolons, you’re wasting your time.
… Still with me?
Then let’s get started.
Now, as I stated before, there’s never really a time when semicolons are necessary. Therefore, there are never times when you should use semicolons, only times when you can use semicolons.
You’ve already seen two examples of when you can use semicolons earlier in this post. The second example follows slightly more complex guidelines than the first, but all semicolon usage follows the same basic rule:
- Use a semicolon to combine two clauses that otherwise could have been two separate sentences.
This is a pretty easy rule to understand. Remember the first sentence I used in the introduction:
Some fear it; others see it as a challenge.
Pretty basic. And thinking about the overall rule I just gave you, you can probably see it as two separate sentences as well:
Some fear it. Others see it as a challenge.
Notice that the two separate sentences are grammatically correct on their own. This is important. The rule does not apply if the sentences are not complete. If they aren’t complete, you most likely have to use a different type of punctuation entirely.
You may be thinking, can’t I just use a comma? For this example in particular, yes, you could. However, notice the difference in how the sentence reads when a comma is used:
Some fear it, while others see it as a challenge.
It doesn’t have the same impact when a comma is used. This is why I say that semicolons can be poetic. The semicolon can make two basic sentences seem much more important than they really are.
Got It? Let’s Get a Bit More Complex.
The second example I used earlier follows the same basic idea. However, when you read the two combined sentences separately, you’ll notice something slightly peculiar:
However, their reasoning isn’t that semicolons themselves are tricky; it’s that differentiating the semicolon from the regular colon and comma is tricky.
However, their reasoning isn’t that semicolons themselves are tricky. It’s that differentiating the semicolon from the regular colon and comma is tricky.
It’s a bit hard to catch, but the sentences look and even sound a bit awkward when they’re separated. They’re meant to be connected and don’t sound quite right when they aren’t.
This is where semicolons get tricky. Some people consider this a proper use of the semicolon; some do not. It’s a matter of preference. My opinion is that it works, but if your teacher says it doesn’t, don’t test them. It’s not worth it.
When Not to Use a Semicolon
Semicolons do not replace commas!!! This is the biggest mistake people make when trying to use semicolons. In some cases, commas can replace semicolons, but the relationship only goes one way.
Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:
Correct: They fought hard, but all was for naught.
Incorrect: They fought hard; but all was for naught.
Correct: Though she loved him, she couldn’t marry him.
Incorrect: Though she loved him; she couldn’t marry him.
Correct: She loved to dance, so she did.
Incorrect: She loved to dance; so she did.
And one more, just to clarify:
Correct: Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.
DO NOT REPLACE COMMAS WITH SEMICOLONS. IT DOES NOT WORK.
That being said, commas aren’t the only punctuation commonly replaced with semicolons. People replace colons with semicolons as well, and I’ve even seen hyphens replaced with semicolons.
There’s an easy way to not make these mistakes:
- Check to make sure no other punctuation works before testing the semicolon.
If no other punctuation works, then maybe a semicolon will. However, check all other forms of punctuation first.
If you’re still not confident that you know how to use a semicolon, check out this guide at GrammarBook.com. I used it to double check myself when I was writing this. It’s short, sweet, and very helpful.
Let me know what other grammar/writing rules you need help with! I’ll try to get to most things eventually, but if you need some help with something in particular, I’ll work on it immediately!
Picture sources: From the Write Angle