Semicolons are one of the most feared punctuation marks around. They’re an inexplicable mix of a colon and a comma, and they justifiably intimidate many writers. How does one use this strange tool?
Using semicolons can add an air of sophistication to any writing: because they’re so mysterious, semicolons are impressive to those who don’t know how to wield them. Kind of like a samurai sword.
But semicolons are more than fancy-schmancy punctuation. When used confidently and correctly, semicolons give you a range of options for connecting your ideas together in a clearer, more exact manner. And clarity and precision represent true sophistication, which impresses experts and novices alike. After all, a fine samurai sword is likely best appreciated by samurai, don’t you think?
Semicolons have several uses, but we will focus here on using semicolons to join independent clauses.
A quick review: a clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate. An independent clause can stand on its own as a sentence. A dependent clause, on the other hand, cannot stand on its own as a sentence. An example for clarification:
Independent Clause: I will get home at 6:30.
Dependent Clause: when I get home
There are four basic ways to connect two independent clauses, and each has implications for the relationship between the two clauses’ ideas.
1. Place them in adjacent sentences.
I won’t get home until 6:30. I will cook dinner when I get home.
In this example, the two ideas are placed side by side. However, there isn’t as much of a relationship between these two ideas as there could be. Moreover, it comes across to the reader as choppy; it doesn’t have the flow we want. Let’s try another method.
2. Place them in the same sentence using a comma and coordinating conjunction.
I won’t get home until 6:30, but I will cook dinner when I get home.
This construction relates the ideas more closely because they’re sharing one sentence. In addition, the sentence uses “but” to help the reader understand the two ideas in relation to one another.
Now, let’s try connecting these ideas with semicolons.
3. Place them in the same sentence using a semicolon.
I won’t get home until 6:30; I will cook dinner when I get home.
This sentence increases the two clauses’ relationship relative to number 1; the clauses are now sharing one sentence. You can only do this with independent clauses, however. Dependent clauses will not do.
A rule of thumb: if you’re considering placing a semicolon between two clauses, try substituting a period. If a period works, that means that you have two independent clauses. If you have two independent clauses, you’re good to go with a semicolon.
Now for my favorite:
4. Place them in the same sentence using the semicolon-adverbial conjunction-comma combo.
I won’t get home until 6:30; nevertheless, I will cook dinner when I get home.
If you compare this construction to number 2 above, you’ll see important similarities and differences. To avoid confusion, apply the same self check you used in number 3. If you replace the comma in number 2 with a period, the second half – “But I will cook dinner when I get home” – won’t stand on its own. Since it won’t stand on its own, you need a comma rather than a semicolon. (To be clear, we’re referring to academic and professional writing standards rather than, say, fiction writing standards. Fiction writing frequently bends grammar rules in order to achieve naturalness.)
Continuing with our experiment, replace the semicolon in number 4 with a period. The second half – “Nevertheless, I will cook dinner when I get home” – will stand on its own as a sentence. Therefore, we need the semicolon. (If you only used a comma, it would be a particular type of run-on sentence called a “comma splice.”)
I love using the number 4 construction because it allows the writer to indicate the relationship between these two ideas in the clearest way possible. “Nevertheless” says so much more than “but.”
So, next time you’re trying to improving your writing’s flow by using an adverbial conjunction, why not experiment with a semicolon as well? Soon, your sentences will be working much harder, and creating more meaning, than you ever thought they could.
Learn to wield the mighty semicolon; it will help you become a warrior of words.