On the semicolon

16 Mar

A while ago, I wrote a post about blogging more for 2011, asking people what they’d like me to write about; I had several replies. The responses had different themes: business issues; what I got up to during my working week; and specific things like the use of the semicolon and capitals.

I love the semicolon; I think it’s a thing of elegance and beauty. I use it a lot in my copyediting work, often swapping in a semicolon for a comma; I never know which changes my clients accept, but I hope those are some of them!

And now I’m going to stop trying to use it in every sentence. Like a bright colour in a room or a choice swear word in a conversation, it’s perhaps best used sparingly if you’re to get the full effect.

So: a definition. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the semicolon thus: “n. a punctuation mark (;) indicating a more pronounced pause than that of a comma.” It also reminds me that it’s written semicolon, and not semi-colon, causing me to (a) check this in my other sources and (b) amend what I’ve typed already here.

And when do we use it? Here, I turn to New Hart’s Rules, which is recommended by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and so is a style bible for me. Basically, you use a semicolon to divide two or more main clauses which complement or parallel each other and could stand as sentences in their own right. Basically, this makes the text flow better, as instead of being divided up into choppy, short sentences, you can create one, or a series of, balanced and elegant statements. Remember though, folks – if the second clause explains the first, a colon is more appropriate.

You can also use it in a list, in two ways: either where the items in the list have commas within each item, and a semicolon between each item will clarify matters (“They pointed out, in support of their plea, that they had interviewed all of the candidates, successful and unsuccessful; that they had contacted those people, by telephone if possible, who had not been successful; and that they had written to all the others”) or where there is a list separated from the rest of the sentence with a colon, as in my initial paragraph, above.

Interestingly for my international work and readers, there is no difference here between British English and American English.

Here ends my short lesson on the semicolon. Go on, try using one today!


Posted by on March 16, 2011 in Language use, Punctuation, Writing


Tags: , ,

6 responses to “On the semicolon

  1. Jan Carr

    March 18, 2011 at 8:59 am

    I really like this succinct explanation thanks. While I’d not previously viewed a semicolon as “a thing of elegance and beauty” I have been partial to using them frequently; perhaps even scattering them throughout with gay abandon.
    Henceforth I’ll view semicolons as useful friends with specific purposes and try to be more careful about their use.
    You see I have used one herein. Was it appropriate?


  2. libroediting

    March 18, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Thank you for your comment! Yes, I believe that semicolon to be appropriately used. I’m glad you enjoy my blog!


  3. Jen

    March 18, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Fascinating – I like to use them too, I have an instinctive feeling for when I think a semicolon is appropriate – next time I must compare my instinct with your rules!


    • libroediting

      March 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm

      Well, they’re not my rules, but feel free to use them!


  4. Sparrowgrass

    March 22, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I love semicolons but I don’t think an I ♥ ; T-shirt would be as good as my I ♥ π T-shirt. Sad.



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