A semicolon, even more often misused than an apostrophe or quotation mark, is visually, essentially a period on top of a comma. Some call it a hard comma. Others call it a soft period. A semicolon separates two independent clauses, but suggests a continuation of a thought.
When to Use a Semicolon
Writers use semicolons to:
- Link two related independent clauses
- “My birthday is Tuesday; I can’t wait to eat cake.”
- Link two clauses connected by a conjunctive adverb
- “My birthday is Tuesday; however, I won’t be able to have cake because I’m on a diet.”
- Ensure clarity in lists with commas
- “I need to go to the grocery store to get eggs, bacon, and pancake batter for breakfast; lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes for lunch; and chicken, mashed potatoes, and broccoli for dinner.”
When Not to Use a Semicolon
People often misuse commas by placing them where they should use a comma or colon or by using them to link unrelated clauses or sentences.
Correct: “In other words, you should always use a semicolon correctly.”
Incorrect: “In other words; you should always use a semicolon correctly.”
Correct: “She needed three things from the store: eggs, milk, and bread.”
Incorrect: “She needed three things from the store; eggs, milk, and bread.”
Unrelated Clauses or Sentences
Incorrect: “My birthday is Tuesday; I need to go to the store.”
A period might make sense between these two unrelated independent clauses. But they are still unrelated and might not make sense next to each other. However, if you specify that you need to go to the store to buy cake for the party, then a semicolon could actually make sense.
“My birthday is Tuesday; I need to go to the store to get cake for the party.”
Is the semicolon in danger?
In addition to being used inaccurately, the semicolon, the invention or modern use of which many credit to Aldus Manutius around year 1500, seems to be in danger of becoming obsolete. Since the 1800s there has been a steady decline in its usage. Now we tend to see semicolons when professional writers use them or if our friend wants to text us a winky face. 😉
Come back next week to learn more about ending a sentence with a preposition and check out last week’s post on the use of “they” as a singular, gender neutral pronoun. As always, if you need help writing, call us: 888-521-3880.