The Art of the Semicolon

Published: 02/01/2016

Today's post concerns one of the most underappreciated and misused punctuation marks in all of grammar: the mighty semicolon.

Why bother with semicolons? Semicolons are not merely for the snobbish academic writer, but rather can help anyone's writing sound more professional. The appropriate use of semicolons can help you make your point while simultaneously demonstrating your judicious writing sensibility.

How do you use a semicolon? There are two main ways semicolons are used in modern writing, and they are very easy to understand:

1. Use a semicolon to separate two ideas that could grammatically stand alone as complete sentences, but which are so closely tied together that they should be in the same sentence.

Example: Michelangelo is esteemed as one of the greatest artists of all time; few artisans approach his level of craftsmanship and even fewer mimic eternal beauty with mortal tools as convincingly as he did.

These two clauses could be separated with a period, but the writer chose to use a semicolon because of how closely the two ideas are linked. Do not use a semicolon where you would use a comma; if the next clause begins with a conjunction like "but," "or," or "and," then you probably need a comma. Do not separate two independent sentences with a comma, either; this capital offense is referred to as a "comma splice" and is severe indeed.

2. Use a semicolon to separate items within a list when each item is more grammatically complex than a mere word.

Example: The hallmarks of a timeless work of art may include the following: masterful utilization of the medium at hand; symbolic references and multiple layers of meaning; purity of form; and enduring value across various artistic periods.

You can also use a semicolon to separate cities within a list.

Example: Some of the greatest art museums in the United States are found in Los Angeles, California; New York City, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; and Washington, DC.

Commas are often used within lists when the items are shorter and simpler. "When you visit Paris, you should be certain to see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Arc de Triomphe."

Semicolons can help you inject professionalism and variety into your writing; the proper use of semicolons can elevate your writing from satisfactory to exceptional.

Author: Caroline Larson
Position: Director of Content Management
Caroline Larson earned a bachelor's degree at Brigham Young University and a master's degree at Florida State University. As the Director of Content Management, Caroline specializes in writing, editing, and managing content that is accurate, engaging, and compelling. She is a published author with experience in writing on a variety of subjects, and she has a passion for language; in addition to English, she speaks French and Italian, as well as basic Spanish and German.

comments powered by Disqus