Posted on 14th June 2012
How to use a semicolon
Most people are pretty confident when it comes to using full stops and commas, but there’s one particular punctuation mark that unsettles even some of the most enthusiastic writers: the semicolon.
Personally I am an enormous fan of the semicolon and reckon that it can be mastered very swiftly if you take a moment to pay it a bit of attention. So, here goes, a quick master class in using the semicolon…
The semicolon is stronger than a comma, but not quite as forceful as a full stop. It can be used in a number of different ways, and by including it in your work you’ll immediately make your writing style more sophisticated and fluid.
One of the most useful functions of a semicolon is that it can be employed in order to sort out a complicated list full of items which themselves include commas. Take this mess of a list for example:
‘In today’s lecture series we will be hearing from Professor Watson, University of York, Dr Jones, University of Cambridge, Mrs T. Thickett, IMF, Lady Annabel Tortill, Royal Society of Physicians and Professor H. Horton, University of Sussex.’
We can simplify the list enormously by adding in some semicolons, like this: ‘In today’s lecture series we will be hearing from Professor Watson, University of York; Dr Jones, University of Cambridge; Mrs T. Thickett, IMF; Lady Annabel Tortill, Royal Society of Physicians and Professor H. Horton, University of Sussex.’
Here is another list which has been enhanced by the use of some semicolons: ‘There are stores in the following cities: Amsterdam, Holland; London, England; Pisa, Italy and Madrid, Spain.’
The semicolon can also be used to bring together two closely related, but independent clauses. By ‘independent’ we mean that each clause has to be able to make sense on its own. For example, take the following two sentences:
‘I don’t like eating dairy products.’
‘Cheese really disagrees with my stomach.’
Each of these sentences makes sense on their own, but they could also be joined together with a conjunction, like this:
‘I don’t like eating dairy products because cheese really disagrees with my stomach.’
Since we’ve established that each of the clauses make sense on their own, and they can be linked with a conjunction, we can now be quite sure that we can use a semicolon to connect the two, like this:
‘I don’t like eating dairy products; cheese really disagrees with my stomach.’
Right, time to test yourself…
In which of these sentences is the semicolon used correctly?
a) Dorset is a wonderful place; rolling fields and beautiful villages,
b) Dorset is a wonderful place; the landscape is beautiful and the atmosphere is so peaceful.
c) Dorset is a wonderful place; walks are fantastic.
The correct answer is b.
Another way of using a semicolon appropriately is to insert it in front of a conjunctive adverb (such as ‘however’ or ‘therefore’) or a transitional expression (such as ‘in fact’ or ‘for example’). Here are some examples:
“Words rarely express the true meaning; in fact they tend to hide it.” (Hermann Hesse)
“It is forbidden to kill; therefore, all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” (Voltaire)
“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” (Bertrand Russell)
“Science in the modern world has many uses; its chief use, however, is to provide long words to cover the errors of the rich.” (G.K. Chesterton)
Do you think you’re getting the hang of it now? Have a go at using the semicolon in your own writing. Good luck!