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Semicolons

 

Use a semicolon:

  1. to join two independent clauses.
  2. to join more than two independent clauses.
  3. to separate items in a series.

Rule 1:

 

Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses that are closely related. You may also use a semicolon in coordination with a transitional word and in place of a comma and a conjunction.

Sometimes a period seems like too strong of a mark to use to separate two closely related sentences, but a comma does not emphasize both sentences adequately. In cases like this, you can use a semicolon to join two independent clauses. Using a semicolon to join two independent clauses gives you as the writer a subtle way of showing a relationship between two clauses. You might use a semicolon, for example, if your second sentence restates your first. Or perhaps your second sentence more clearly defines your first sentence by giving an example or by presenting a contrast. Finally, you may want to link two clauses with a semicolon if they have a cause and effect relationship.

 

 

Example:

 

Loyalty is the foundation upon which relationships are built; without loyalty, friendships and marriages crumble.

 

In this example, the second sentence restates the first sentence. A semicolon is appropriate here and functions to convey the close relationship between the two sentences.

 

 

Example:

 

The puppy scooted blindly across the floor; his eyes hadn’t opened yet leaving him totally dependent on his mother.

 

The second sentence in this example more clearly defines why the puppy is moving around blindly. The semicolon ties the explanation of the first clause to the description in the second clause. A semicolon is also functional in this last example:

 

Of course it’s pouring down rain on the day of the picnic; it was sunny the day we were inside roller-skating!

 

The semicolon here emphasizes the irony that is portrayed in this sentence by connecting the two contrasting sentences.

 

Contrasting clauses may also be joined by using a semicolon along with a transitional word.

 

 

Example:

 

These days there is a cure for every ailment; however, the side effects of many medications are worse than the condition for which the medication is prescribed.

 

Here two independent clauses are joined with a semicolon and the transitional word however. The second clause shows that medicines don’t always produce positive effects in contrast with the first clause, which indicates that almost every ailment can be cured. The transitional word however further defines this contrasting relationship. A transitional word may also serve to emphasize a cause-effect relationship such as in this example:

 

The drought has greatly affected many farmers; therefore, the price of produce is expected to rise.

 

You may choose to use semicolons to portray a close relationship between two clauses as seen in the examples above. In other cases, you may recognize that using a variety of punctuation marks adds interest to your writing. Based on this recognition, the choice to join two clauses with a semicolon and a transitional word may be a stylistic choice rather than a grammatical one. Likewise, adding variety to your writing may be the purpose when it comes to replacing a comma and conjunction with a semicolon.

 

 

Example:

 

The slippery rock presented the climbers with a challenge, so they watched their footing very closely.

 

Becomes:

The slippery rock presented the climbers with a challenge; they watched their footing very closely.

 

In the first example, the two independent clauses are joined with a comma and a conjunction, and in the second sentence, a semicolon replaces the comma and the conjunction. While both sentences are correct and function equally well, you may choose to use the semicolon this way to add variety. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to replace the comma with a semicolon in order to provide clarity. In these cases, you may or may not omit the conjunction. For example,

 

From such a great distance, the man could not make out the faces of the evil, crafty conspirators, but, if he moved any closer, he would be taking an unnecessary, careless risk of being seen.

 

Because this sentence contains so much punctuation, it is a bit tedious to read and can be confusing. To remedy this, a semicolon can be used to join the two clauses. In this case, the conjunction but is important in enhancing the cause and effect relationship in the sentence and therefore it should remain:

 

From such a great distance, the man could not make out the faces of the evil, crafty conspirators; but, if he moved any closer, he would be taking an unnecessary, careless risk of being seen.

 

The semicolon in the example above provides much needed clarity to the sentence by separating the two independent clauses.

 

 

 

 

 

√ Check your work

 

To use a semicolon to join two independent clauses, analyze the two clauses carefully to make sure there is a close relationship between the two before placing the semicolon. Be careful not to misuse semicolons, especially when you use them with a transitional word or in place of a comma and conjunction. For example:

 

Incorrect:

I was forced; therefore, to take the detour around the construction site.

 

Correct:

I was forced, therefore, to take the detour around the construction site.

 

In this example, therefore is a transitional word and should be set off with commas. Furthermore, the clause I was forced is an independent clause and to take the detour around the construction site is not, so the clauses cannot be set apart by a semicolon.

 

Take the same caution when replacing a comma and conjunction with a semicolon. Remember that, to join two clauses with a comma and a conjunction, both clauses must be independent. That is, each clause must be able to stand alone as a separate sentence. For example,

 

 

Incorrect:

He completed the yard work, and then enjoyed a lemonade break with his mom.

 

Incorrect:

He completed the yard work; and then enjoyed a lemonade break with his mom.

 

Correct:

He completed the yard work and then enjoyed a lemonade break with his mom.

 

The subject in this sentence is He and the compound verb is completed and enjoyed. There is no subject in the second part of the sentence, so it is incorrect to use a comma and conjunction in the sentence. Likewise, a semicolon cannot be used.

Rule 2:

 

Use a semicolon to join more than two independent clauses. In Rule 1, we discussed using a semicolon to join two independent clauses. Semicolons can also be used to join multiple independent clauses in more complex sentences:

 

 

 

Example:

 

Over the past few years, violence has adopted a new calling card; it is more random, gruesome and sinister than ever. In this country of freedom, violence has made its presence known in all areas of life. In schools, students take the lives of other students before taking their own; a close knit community is gripped by fear because of random shootings by a sniper; a father kills another father over their sons’ hockey game.

 

This example could be written as a few separate sentences; however, since the independent clauses are all closely related, it is acceptable to link them with semicolons. Joining multiple independent clauses is often a stylistic choice and an effective one because it makes an impact by more closely connecting the sentences. When not serving just a stylistic choice, joining more than two independent clauses with a semicolon adds clarity such as in the following example:

 

Confusing:

The Thompsons spent two exciting weeks on safari in Africa and returned with wild tales of their trip. They saw all the sights anyone who goes on safari dreams of. They saw zebras, rhinoceroses, and giraffes grazing on the savanna, they witnessed a lion chasing after an antelope, a herd of elephants stomped across the road in front of their truck, and some curious, chattering monkeys came up to their truck and took food out of their hands.

 

Better:

The Thompsons spent two exciting weeks on safari in Africa and returned with wild tales of their trip. They saw all the sights anyone who goes on safari dreams of; they saw zebras, rhinoceroses, and giraffes grazing on the savanna; they witnessed a lion chasing after an antelope; a herd of elephants stomped across the road in front of their truck; and some curious, chattering monkeys came up to their truck and took food out of their hands.

 

In the first example, the writer uses commas to separate the series of clauses. However, because the clauses themselves contain lists of words separated by commas, the sentence is confusing; the semicolons in the second example provide clarity by dividing the clauses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

√ Check your work

 

To join multiple independent clauses with a semicolon, make sure the clauses you are joining are related. Also consider using a semicolon instead of a comma to join clauses. To do this, check for commas within the clauses. Too many commas cause confusion and can be eliminated by using semicolons instead. Be careful, however, not to use semicolons too often because overuse can make a writer sound pedantic. When used conservatively, semicolons can add a great deal of impact. To avoid overusing semicolons, reread your text and make sure your use of semicolons is sporadic; semicolons should never appear as often as commas or periods.

 

 

Too many semicolons:

My next interviewee came in and sat across from me; she tried to put on a confident face; she maintained eye contact throughout the interview; I could tell she was nervous, though; she played anxiously with her ring; she shifted positions every few seconds; her voice quivered a bit.

 

Better:

My next interviewee came in and sat across from me. She tried to put on a confident face by maintaining eye contact throughout the interview. I could tell she was nervous, though; she played anxiously with her ring, shifted positions every few seconds and her voice quivered a bit.

 

Semicolons are used in place of periods and almost all of the commas in the first example. In the rewrite of the example, all but one semicolon is replaced with a period. The remaining semicolon is placed after I could tell she was nervous, though. The clause that follows gives a description that further defines the assumption that the interviewee was nervous.

Rule 3:

 

Use a semicolon to separate items in a series when the items themselves contain commas.

Just as you should use semicolons to join independent clauses when the clauses contain commas, you should also use semicolons to separate words and phrases in a series when those words and phrases contain commas.

 

 

For example,

 

Confusing:

I boarded a flight in Los Angeles, California, had a two-hour layover in Detroit,
Michigan, and finally landed in London, England.

 

Better:

I boarded a flight in Los Angeles, California; had a two-hour layover in Detroit,
Michigan; and finally landed in London, England.

 

This sentence contains a series of clauses, which must be separated. However, each clause contains the name of a city and a state, which also must be separated. Using only commas in this example causes confusion because it is difficult to tell which commas separate clauses and which ones separate the elements within each clause. Separating the clauses with semicolons clarifies the meaning. Here is another example:

 

All employees must bring a pen, paper, and a notebook to the first day of training; a laptop, highlighter and paperclips to day two; and a sample report, pie chart and three markers to the last day.

 

Here again, too many commas creates confusion, so in order to simplify the sentence and make it more clear, the clauses in the series are separated by semicolons.

 

 

 

 

 

√ Check your work

 

Check each of the independent clauses you have joined with commas. Do any of the independent clauses contain commas? If so, joining the independent clauses with a semicolon instead of a comma will probably make the sentence clearer.

 

Confusing:

My pottery class is on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and I baby sit my nephew,
niece, and neighbor’s son on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

 

Better:

My pottery class is on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; and I baby sit my nephew,
niece and neighbor’s son on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

 

Again, be careful not to overuse semicolons. If, after you review your writing, you feel you have used semicolons too often, consider using other methods to join phrases. For example, you might use a period to divide clauses into separate sentences. Remember that semicolons can make a big impact but only when used conservatively and correctly.





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