Semicolons 101

Transvestite hermaphrodites? Not really.

I’ve had a request for a class on semicolons. So here are the two principal uses of the semicolon, as well as the three most common misuses.

If we could query the late Kurt Vonnegut, he would likely advise us to avoid semicolons entirely, having said of them, “They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing.” (I suggest you save wrapping your head around that for later.) I checked up on Mr. Vonnegut and found numerous semicolons in 1963’s Cat’s Cradle, but not a one in 1969’s Slaughterhouse Five. What happened in the interim? Did semicolons fail a personal acid test of some kind? Whatever the heck Vonnegut was talking about and why, he did walk his talk.

If transvestite hermaphrodites and semicolons have anything in common, I suspect it’s that both are widely misunderstood. I can imagine that the former stand for something (that’s for them to say), and I am certain that the latter are in fact quite useful, if often abused. So do employ semicolons in your writing, but do it correctly—and sparingly. Here are the basics on this mark of punctuation, plus a few of its many subtleties.

The semicolon has two principal uses:

1. It joins, as a single sentence, two independent clauses that are closely connected in thought but not linked by a conjunction (such as and or but). A clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a predicate; it’s independent if it can stand alone as a sentence.

2. It separates items in a series when some of the items already have commas, which can make the list easier to comprehend.

Joining

Let’s look at the first use. The definition from above is as good an illustration as any.

Right (and best in this instance): A clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a predicate; it’s independent if it can stand alone as a sentence.

Wrong: A clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a predicate; and it’s independent if it can stand alone as a sentence.

Wrong: A clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a predicate, it’s independent if it can stand alone as a sentence.

Why is the first example above correct? First, it could be written as two sentences and still be grammatically correct:

Also right: A clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a predicate. It’s independent if it can stand alone as a sentence.

Second, there is no conjunction, although it could be written with one and still be correct:

Also right: A clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a predicate, and it’s independent if it can stand alone as a sentence.

Third, the two statements are closely connected in thought and deserving of linkage.

The third criterion is always the sticky one. Are the two thoughts really connected? Is a semicolon truly the best option, or would two sentences, or a comma and a conjunction, do just as well? Misused semicolons make your writing confusing, and too many make it choppy, so think carefully.

Here, the semicolon is a great choice because the sentence presents a single definition that has two components. It helps the reader by signaling that these two thoughts go together, that they are more closely associated with each other than the first is with the sentence before or the second is with any sentence that might come after.

There are, of course, exceptions. If the clauses are quite short and balanced in structure, or if the tone is very conversational, ditching the first two criteria can be not only correct but also preferable.

Right but stilted: The problem was simple; the solution was simple.

Better: The problem was simple, and the solution was simple.

Best: The problem was simple, the solution was simple.

Right but stilted: He was smart; he was handsome; he was funny. What more could a girl want?

Better: He was smart, he was handsome, he was funny. What more could a girl want?

The commas, with less stopping power than semicolons, give the sentence more momentum and liveliness—and someone sounds excited!

By the way, you could write that last example as a list:

Also right: He was smart, handsome, and funny. What more could a girl want?

However, the repeating structure of the “better” example nicely emphasizes the individual qualities.

See the January 2009 class on direct address for another example of semicolon decision making.

Separating

Now let’s look at the second use, separating items in a series when some of the items already have commas. Without semicolons, the following sentence might be hard to grasp:

Right: The menu included porcini and truffle soup; chicken with a sauce of white wine, shallots, butter, and thyme; braised cannellini beans with marjoram; a spinach, walnut, and gorgonzola salad; and chocolate mousse cake.

Hard to read: The menu included porcini and truffle soup, chicken with a sauce of white wine, shallots, butter, and thyme, braised cannellini beans with marjoram, a spinach, walnut, and gorgonzola salad, and chocolate mousse cake.

Such lists don’t always need semicolons to be readable, especially if the extra commas appear only in the final item. The sentence below, a simplified version of the last example, works partly because it is indeed simpler. But it also works because there is only one and, whose appearance indicates that we have reached the last item of the list, and a singular article that further indicates one item.

Just fine: The menu included porcini-truffle soup, chicken with wine sauce, braised cannellini beans with marjoram, and a spinach, walnut, and gorgonzola salad.

Not wrong, but not particularly necessary: The menu included porcini-truffle soup; chicken with wine sauce; braised cannellini beans with marjoram; and a spinach, walnut, and gorgonzola salad.

Common Misuses

Here are the three most common semicolon mistakes I notice:

1. Writers use it with (before) a conjunction when, as discussed, it should be used instead of a comma and conjunction.

2. It’s used where a colon is what’s needed. The semicolon has not only a linking effect, but also a stopping effect. It’s akin to a very strong comma—or a weak period, if you like. A colon, on the other hand, introduces, launches the reader forward. (I think of the colon as the mouth of a megaphone: what comes after it is an “amplification”—as in expansion, explanation, or example—of what comes before it.)

3. And then there’s the semicolon as silver bullet. As Theodore M. Bernstein puts it in The Careful Writer, “What a semicolon is not used for is to cover up the faults in a sentence out of control.” So if you find yourself laboring over a long, unruly sentence that just won’t be tamed, and slipping in a semicolon suddenly seems like a neat idea … do yourself and your readers a favor: rewrite the dang thing instead.