How to use a semi-colon is a problem that baffles many people—whether they realize it or not.
But no more.
Let’s put an end to semi-colon confusion. Those poor, misunderstood semi-colons. And those poor, misunderstood editors who have to fix all fifty semi-colon mistakes in a single manuscript.
Ahem. That may be an exaggeration. A little one.
There are two reasons you’d want to use a semi-colon: to separate two independent clauses and to separate complex list items.
How to use a semi-colon #1: two independent clauses
Rather than get into the technical aspects of what independent clauses are—because I’m not sure anyone but the grammar nerds care—I’m going to keep it simple. Independent clauses are thoughts and ideas that are complete on their own.
That means if you walked into a room and yelled, “I LOVE PIZZA!” everyone would understand what you meant without additional information. They might wonder why you’re shouting your love of pizza at them, but that’s not the point.
The point is if you walked into a room and yelled, “BECAUSE I LOVE PIZZA!” you’d leave people wondering what you’re talking about. “Because I love pizza, why?” they’d ask. “What is going on? And why do I suddenly want pizza?”
“Because I love pizza” isn’t a complete thought; it’s not an independent clause. See what I did there? Two complete thoughts connected by a semi-colon.
Here’s the easiest way to check to see if you have two independent clauses: put a period where the semi-colon is. Does each sentence make complete grammatical sense on its own? If yes, congrats! You’ve used the semi-colon correctly. If each sentence doesn’t make sense, you need something else. (And that’s another story for another time.)
How to use a semi-colon #2: complex list items
Important note here: semi-colons do not signal the start of a list—that’s what colons are for. Semi-colons separate list items that already contain commas. And if you try to separate a list item that has commas with another comma, it gets really comma confusing. Allow me to demonstrate how to separate complex list items.
I saw those three girls already today: the tall, leggy brunette with red pants; the blonde who has a red, blue, and white striped shirt; and the lanky, freckled, and fiery redhead.
The simple version of the list would go something like this: the brunette, the blonde, and the redhead.
Have your say on semi-colons. Do you use them? Love or hate them?