Semicolons

As promised, today’s topic is the semicolon. I am always surprised by the numbers of writers who express genuine apprehension about semicolons. Somebody out there is giving people the idea that the semicolon is a risky bit of punctuation. There is, of course, the possibility for some initial confusion about the semicolon (is it more like a period? or a comma? or a colon?). But academic writers–people who study topics that are genuinely challenging (every semester I get at least one actual rocket scientist in a class)–can definitely handle the slight complexity of semicolon use.

The semicolon has two main uses. One, we can use a semicolon in the place of a comma in a list; in such cases, the semicolon does more than a comma, allowing us to include complex elements without worrying about unnecessary ambiguity. Two, we can use a semicolon in the place of a period between two complete sentences; in such cases, the semicolon does less than a period, allowing us to express a close topical connection between two independent sentences.

1. Semicolons in lists:

When we need to separate list items that are themselves complex or that have internal punctuation, semicolons work far better than commas.

Example:

The research on workplace equity confronts three main issues: the difficulty of finding an acceptable definition of workplace equity; the tension between workers, given that inequity will be perceived differently by different groups; and the tendency of managers to value business performance over working conditions.

Compare that to a version with commas between the list items:

The research on workplace equity confronts the difficulty of finding an acceptable definition of workplace equity, the tension between workers, given that inequity will be perceived differently by different groups, and the tendency of managers to value business performance over working conditions.

In the second example, the comma before given can create confusion. If we use semicolons, however, we avoid that ambiguity. (I will devote a future post to the topic of lists; we all use lists extensively in our academic writing, and there are things we can do to make sure we are using them effectively.)

2. Semicolons between sentences

When we need to divide two independent sentences while still maintaining a close thematic connection, semicolons work well.

Example:

Drying shrinkage can be eradicated by the application of the proper curing method; this reliance on curing means that we will need accurate measurements of the free water left in the concrete and of the relative humidity of the environment.

Compare that to a version in which both ideas are expressed in a single sentence:

Drying shrinkage can be eradicated by the application of the proper curing method, which means that we will need accurate measurements of the free water left in the concrete and the relative humidity of the environment.

The second example is less effective because of the potential ambiguity of the referent for which. You could, of course, solve this problem with a period instead of a semicolon. But those two sentences (having once been a single sentence) would still be closely connected. Showing that close connection with a semicolon can be a useful approach, especially for the academic writer who is looking to make complex connections among ideas without writing dense or ambiguous sentences.

The semicolon, as we just saw, can divide grammatically while uniting thematically. As readers, we are attuned to the end of sentences: when we reach the end of a sentence, we happily stop thinking about the grammatical relationship between the parts of the sentence. So ending sentences can be good. But short sentences–if they are too common or come in batches–can be bad.  A semicolon allows us to end a sentence while explicitly continuing our treatment of an idea. This benefit of semicolons is why we so often see them used with conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions (e.g., however, instead, nevertheless, specifically, equally important, for example, in fact, on the contrary):

Ninety percent of Canadians recognize the components of a healthy diet; however, they fail to apply this knowledge when selecting foods.

These sentences could be separated by a period, but most of us will want to keep them closer than that. This is not to say that transitional words or phrases demand semicolons but rather that semicolons will often accurately reflect the relationship we are constructing when we use such expressions.

If you have questions about semicolons, please feel free to ask them in the comment section. And if you have no such questions, you should be happily using semicolons to great advantage in your writing. The next post will be an editing tip: identifying your own scaffolding phrases.

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4 responses to “Semicolons

  1. Very instructive article! However, an excellent approach to the semicolon is to view it from a historical perspective, when it was first invented (16th century) by an Italian typographer, then later imported into England. I wrote a long article, “The Enigmatic Semicolon”, in The Vocabula Review (July 2009), but you must be a subscriber to read the entire article. However, the article is free on my website, http://www.medlinguistics.com. Once there, click the link Enigmatic Semicolon on the navigation sidebar, and enjoy! Thanks again for the informative article. Janet

  2. Very interesting post, thanks.

    Maybe you can answer this question for me: I recently received some feedback saying that I use too many semi-colons in my writing.
    Now, I do use them a lot, but personally, I like it – I feel long sentences separated by semi-colons allow me to add complexity and offer a lot of information without being misunderstood; plus, I have a built-in aversion from short sentences. Unless when they are used to make clear and important points. Anyway, I appreciate this is basically a question of style, but since I’m not a native English speaker, I feel I might lack a basis to make such a style call intuitively. So my question is this: what’s the general opinion among academic-writing-style buffs about using a lot of semi-colons? Mind, I’m referring to the kind that allows one to make lists of sorts, rather than the kind that merely separates (or attaches) closely related sentences.

    Thanks!

    • Hi Ben:
      As you can tell from this post, I like semicolons a lot, so I may not be the best person to ask! You are right that the stylistic impact of using semicolons in lists and using them as a way of connecting closely related sentences is very different. You might be interested in the posts on periods (where I talk about short and long sentences) and lists (here, here, and here). Thanks for reading!

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