Who’s Afraid of the Semicolon?
by Cherie Tucker
A secretary once told me that her boss had forbidden her to
use the semicolon because he was never sure it was used correctly
and wouldn’t sign any letter that contained one. Many people share
that fear, but semicolons are not as scary as they are reputed to
be. While there are many ways to use them, here are three
easy-to-learn basics that may cover most everyday conundrums. Use
1. When you have two independent clauses (things that could stand
alone as sentences), and you don’t want to use conjunctions such as
and, or, nor, or but to join them, yet
there is a correlation between the two that you wish to
We looked everywhere for truffles; there were none to be had.
When you have two independent clauses (see above) that you wish to
join with transitional expressions such as however,
therefore, nevertheless, furthermore, etc.
The agent said you have a strong writing
style; however, the plot didn’t engage her.
(Notice the comma after however in the above sentence; use
that comma when the transitional expression follows the semicolon.
You may also make that sentence into two separate sentences. Begin
with the transitional expression and include the comma.)
3. When you have a series of items containing internal commas.
Even if you have only one internal comma, such as in a name with a
title (Judy Jones, CEO of ABC), the semicolon prevents misreading.
For example: We invited Bill, Sam,
Al, my boss, Jim, and George. How many did we invite?
What’s my boss’s name? If you change that sentence to:
We invited Bill; Sam; Al, my boss; Jim;
and George, the reader
has only one possible interpretation.
For more extensive illumination on this helpful and often ignored
punctuation mark (and a great deal more), see The Gregg Reference
Manual, Tenth Edition by William A. Sabin. It’s the best
reference tool on the market.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to
professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.
She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the
University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits