Semicolons are one of the most misunderstood and under-utilized weapons in our grammar arsenal.
Here, we’re going to do our best to simplify them. You’ll be casually (and correctly) throwing around semicolons before you know it.
An important thing to understand about the semicolon is that it’s a non-essential punctuation mark. Unlike the period and the comma, which serve crucial purposes, the semicolon is a rather luxurious option; it is used to embellish sentences and allow the writer to express themselves more meaningfully.
The secret behind the semicolon actually lies before our eyes. What does a semicolon look like? It appears to be an amalgamation of a period and a comma. This gives a giant clue on how to use it — not as a period or a comma, but as something in between.
There are three main ways a semicolon is used, as well as a couple of “dos” and “don’ts.”
The first and main use of a semicolon is connecting two sentences that are part of the same thought. Crucially, in this use, the two sentences have to be just that: sentences. They must be independent clauses that are capable of standing on their own.
The blue whale is the largest animal to have ever existed. It is an aquatic mammal.
Now, let’s jazz this up with a semicolon:
The blue whale is the largest animal to have existed; it is an aquatic mammal.
As we can see, the two thoughts exist independently of each other (blue whales being big and blue whales being ocean-dwelling mammals), however, they are intrinsically linked. The semicolon brings them together quite eloquently.
This brings us to the first “don’t.” Don’t use a comma to do a semicolon’s job. When two independent clauses are joined with a comma, this is known in the grammatical world as “a comma splice,” and it is frowned upon by the grammar elite.
The second “don’t” pertains to something you might have already spotted. Notice how the capital ‘I’ from the “It is an aquatic mammal” sentence became lower case when we added the semicolon? That is because the two sentences were joined into one. Don’t use a capital letter after a semicolon. The only time to do this is when the semicolon is followed by a proper noun (a name of a person or place).
The third “don’t” is don’t use a conjunction after a semicolon. A conjunction (and, or, but, etc.) can join two sentences together.
The blue whale is the largest animal to have ever existed, and it is an aquatic mammal.
The comma and the conjunction are performing the job of the semicolon, so there is no reason to use both.
Having said this, the only “do” is somewhat related. Despite conjunctions being inappropriate, conjunctive adverbs are quite welcome. Adverbs are “how” words, elaborating on how something is done. A conjunctive adverb can add more richness to a sentence with a semicolon.
The blue whale is the largest animal to have ever existed; interestingly, it is an aquatic mammal.
Arguably simpler than the first use, but far less common, semicolons can be used in certain types of lists.
An easy example would be:
My favorite U.S. cities are New Orleans, Louisiana; Los Angeles, California; Denver, Colorado and Paris, Texas.
Here, the semicolons are doing the traditional job of commas, because the commas are already in use in the city names.
Here is a more complex example:
On my date last night we saw that new rom-com, accompanied by extra buttery popcorn, Skittles and a Slushie; after that we somehow had room for a full meal, including salmon linguine and fudge cake; to finish we stared at the moon all night, which was extra large for this time of year.
Here, commas are employed to add detail to the list items, meaning semicolons were needed to divide the list.
The final, and most fun, use of a semicolon is the winky face. Grammar traditionalists would have a hard time accepting this as a genuine use. However, whether they like it or not, language rules and norms are at the mercy of common usage and habits. The modern reality is that emoticons and emojis are here to stay.