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The Semicolon

Tasked this week with explaining how to properly use a semicolon, I thought immediately of the poster designed by the…

Tasked this week with explaining how to properly use a semicolon, I thought immediately of the poster designed by the fellow behind web comic The Oatmeal. He’s done a number of grammar posters, and there’s very little I could add to the explanation he offers. I’ll summarize, but for some colorful examples, be sure to check out his post.

There are really only two times when a semicolon is called for:

  • When you wish to show a close relationship between two statements that could stand alone as complete sentences. The semicolon indicates that the statements are more closely related than a period would indicate. The Oatmeal recognizes a subset of this case that occurs when you’d be inclined to use conjunctions (“and” or “but”) to join such statements but you’re already working with complex statements; the semicolon in this case helps maintain the relationships of the statements while avoiding a run-on sentence.
  • When you’re making complex lists whose constituents are either themselves very complex or contain commas. Using the semicolon to separate the complex items keeps the commas within the complex items from being confused with the punctuation separating the complex items.

If you’re inclined to use a semicolon under any other circumstances, think twice, consult the poster, and use the punctuation carefully. You should also use it fairly judiciously. If you find yourself using it very frequently, you may want to consider rethinking how you’ve structured your thoughts or simplifying some of your sentences.

Having mastered the semicolon, maybe you have other grammar questions. Leave a note in the comments, and if a topic strikes my fancy, I’ll address it in a future post.

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  1. I think I overuse the semicolon; I shouldn’t, but I find myself doing it; time and time again. I think it’s because semicolons are so damn attractive. I also think my jumbled up mind is just that, jumbled. Perhaps you may do a piece on commas; I overuse those as well. Thanks.

      1. That does make sense…it’s funny how some teachers stick with us. I had a teacher who made us learn root words, prefixes and suffixes. I hated at the time. Now I am grateful.

  2. The best part about english is how much of a whore it is. The language is always changing, and because there is no one central point of control for it, unlike French for example, the people who use it can modify it over time. Everything in the language is without anchor and ripe for drift. We change words, coin new ones, ignore grammar, and even syntax itself is up for grabs. People complain about the misuse of apostrophes, or using numbers as digits instead of numbers as words, or even what the hell you are supposed to do with that damned semicolon.

    Why not just roll with the changes and see where the errors take you? English is evolving and you can’t have evolution without mutation, and mutation is just fortunate error. Go for the gold. Screw punctuation, violate capitalization rules, verb your nouns and noun your verbs. Give lexicographers heart attacks; It keeps them spry and on their toes.

    And if you notice a spelling error or a grammar error, guess what? I don’t care. Neither does English, the whore.

  3. I absolutely love The Oatmeal and was planning on showcasing his grammar posters on the writing section of my blog. I never understood semicolons until I saw that hilarious poster!

  4. The best part about english is how much of a whore it is. The language is always changing, and because there is no one central point of control for it, unlike French for example, the people who use it can modify it over time. Everything in the language is without anchor and ripe for drift. We change words, coin new ones, ignore grammar, and even syntax itself is up for grabs. People complain about the misuse of apostrophes, or using numbers as digits instead of numbers as words, or even what the hell you are supposed to do with that damned semicolon.

    Why not just roll with the changes and see where the errors take you? English is evolving and you can’t have evolution without mutation, and mutation is just fortunate error. Go for the gold. Screw punctuation, violate capitalization rules, verb your nouns and noun your verbs. Give lexicographers heart attacks; It keeps them spry and on their toes.

    And if you notice a spelling error or a grammar error, guess what? I don’t care. Neither does English, the whore.

    1. I agree. It’s worse than a new version of Windows. Always gotta look for the mistakes, which are just bound to change come the new version 3 years later. Tough and I teach EFL. I call it teaching simplified English and it is compared to what I had to go through when I was at school.

  5. Sweet! I’ve used semicolons the second way because I wasn’t sure how to deal with complex lists with internal commas. I’m pretty excited to know I was using them correctly :-)

  6. I would like to see a post on when to use ‘:’ and when to use ‘-’ . For example, can we use both, ‘The best car in the world: Tesla’ or ‘The best car in the world – Tesla’. I always have this confusion while creating a title for my posts.

    1. I think this is probably mostly a matter of personal style. In a title, I would be more likely to use a colon, in the article itself a dash. I like to use the colon as a way not merely of suggesting a close link between two sentences but as a way of showing something like cause and effect between the first and the second.

  7. Oh – another WordPress daily post about grammar or punctuation. Who the hell cares? What’s important is whether the blogger communicates what she/he wants to communicate – ‘correct’ isn’t important. In the classroom, where I used to teach it, of course it’s important. But here, not a jot. Oh dear, started with a conjunction, no verb, no subject, no … yeah, yeah, yeah …

    1. Lots of people care, it turns out. You’re right that communicating what you’re trying to say is what’s really important, though. Some people do want to know what’s considered standard, and my posts are aimed at them. (Occasionally I tell people when it’s ok to break what they think are hard and fast rules, by the way. And even leading usage experts say that it’s fine to start a sentence with a conjunction.)

      1. You are right that lots of people care Daryl. Many in our society seem to no longer value good grammar and good writing. I’ve often made a hobby of occasionally mocking poor writing, but now there is so much of it out there that it’s become like mocking a serious epidemic.

        Plus, I think complaining about someone offering well-put and useful suggestions about good writing is a lot like whining that one has too much money.

        In the future, perhaps you’d like to conquer the ellipsis, which I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of misusing. (sorry for that awkwardly written last sentence, by the way.)

  8. Thanks for exposing me to The Oatmeal! Genius!!! (That’s an overuse of exclamation marks, I know.)

  9. Sometimes if I use a full stop, it is like the inflection of the voice going down. Too many of them and the article sounds leaden. If I use a semicolon it doesn’t; the sound carries on in my mind higher; I prefer that. I was avoiding the comma-splice, and using the semi-colon correctly.

  10. And- I know that it is absolutely OK to split infinitives, people do it all the time, but it still bugs me and a lot of others. So I would prefer “How to use a semicolon properly”, and generally not splitting infinitives unless avoiding them is clunky.

  11. I find it amazing how many questions there are about when to use a semicolon. I do my best to teach this to my students and we are in fact reviewing its use for ACT Prep.

  12. “If you’re inclined to use a semicolon under any other circumstances; think twice, consult the poster, and use the punctuation carefully.”

    It may be wrong, but that’s what I would have done if I wanted to omit the word, “then.”

      1. From about(dot)com:

        “Colons (:)

        Use a colon to set off a summary or a series after a complete main clause:

        It is time for the baby’s birthday party: a white cake, strawberry-marshmallow ice cream, and a bottle of champagne saved from another party.
        (Joan Didion)”

        “[When] you’re inclined to use a semicolon under any other circumstances: think twice, consult the poster, and use the punctuation carefully.”

    1. Alas, your opening clause there isn’t independent and so can’t stand alone in front of a semicolon. Remember, the things on either side of it have to stand alone as complete sentences (unless you’re just separating a complex list), and here you would introduce a fragment. The comma is acceptable where you’ve placed the semicolon, and the “then” is optional in either case.

      Note that in Didion’s colon example, the part before the colon is also a complete sentence. Your rewrite is a fragment followed by a list and is generally not considered the correct way to use a colon.

      As another commenter above said, though, it’s really all about communicating what you mean to say. No native speaker of English is going to misunderstand what you’re saying here, and if you’re satisfied with the way it reads, then it’s probably ok (provided you’re not worried about what the grammar cranks will have to say about it!). :)

      1. But you can use the colon even with incomplete sentences:

        “Colon Used to Further Explain or Introduce a List

        Further Explanation with a List: Mary’s dinner consisted of the following: salad, soup, chicken, and toast.”

        Mary’s dinner consisted of the following is incomplete by itself.
        But I agree–it may be easier to read, but it’s still seems wrong with the colon/semicolon. I just remember learning that you should use semicolons if you have too many commas in a sentence.

        I’m a grammar nazi who’s prone to making grammatical errors.

      2. So the thing here is that the “the following” construction is elliptical. There’s an implicit ending that makes the sentence understood to be complete. What you’re saying is “Mary’s dinner consisted of the following items,” but the “items” word is made redundant by the list that does in fact follow. Or, I suppose you could explicitly say “the following items.” In fact, I like that better now that you bring it up. :)

        You can use a semicolon if you have too many commas and are using them to splice complete sentences together with those commas. But the semicolon isn’t in general a simple stand-in for commas in complex sentences. If you’re writing sentences with this problem, it’s probably best to consider restructuring some of them.

    1. This is surely the case in more formal writing. In less formal writing, when I’m just stringing a bunch of related things together without worrying too much about style, I’ll sometimes do it, though.

  13. “I wonder why I ever bothered with sex, he thought; there’s nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon.” –Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

  14. I was once told that a semicolon is acceptable as long as the sentence before it was complete; the sentence after it was irrelevant. I thought that explanation was untrue, but didn’t argue. Thanks for confirming my understanding that both sentences must be complete in order to properly use a semicolon.

  15. The oatmeal is a complete meal. It has grammar lessons, cats and healthy amount of funny made-up curse words. Yum! :D

  16. I do tend to use the semicolon quite a bit, although within the parameters described. I think I use them so much because I tend to be wordy when I write and I go off on a lot of tangents.

      1. Thank you. It’s really quite a dated punctuation device: you’ll find it liberally sprinkled throughout 19th century novels. Since I am a rather dated revenant myself, I do use it sparingly, the way one might handle cayenne pepper.

  17. All high school (and grade school) grammar teachers need this poster! Kids would love it, and end up with a much better grasp of punctuation if it adorned the walls of their classroom.

  18. You are spot on about the semi-colon. I try to minimize its use when possible. Like other commenters, I would like your views on the hyphen and dash. Thanks! I plan to repost.

    1. Usually I do give examples, but in this case, I thought the examples provided at The Oatmeal were sufficient. It’s possible that they’re idiomatic and therefore not good examples for a student of English, however.

    1. Good sentence structure and punctuation can be an integral part of style, which can make the writing more readable and can actually enhance what you’re saying. How you say things can have a big impact on how what you’re saying is received (especially in persuasive writing).

      To give an example from another field, why should a chef bother making the food he cooks look nice? He could just purée it into a gray mush, but he wants to make it appetizing as well as nutritious. So he worries about the colors of the foods and the way they’re arranged on the plate. Similarly, a writer ought to strive to be friendly to her user by making her sentences palatable and even enjoyable to confront. Good punctuation helps us make sure we’re organizing our thoughts in logical, concise ways, and paying attention to things like rhythm (which requires attention to sentence structure and thus punctuation) can help us propel the reader through an article.

      1. I agree punctations makes reading not only easier but allows the author to convey his/her thoughts clearly. However, if we focus too much on the grammar many people would never learn to write. I am still learning.

    2. Are you joking? Punctuation doesn’t only make for easier reading, it can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Remember the book ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’? Punctuation isn’t just for pedants :-)

      1. I am having fun! Punctuations are important but I agree with Proust, who thought the rules of language limit creative expression of thoughts.
        (I may have butchered this one) :)

      2. I’ve been also watching a comment discussion about the Baseball Hall of Fame, where no one was voted in this year due to players from the steroid era becoming eligible. What’s interesting is that, as we see here, there is a divide between those who revere correctness and following rules and those who do not place those as top priorities.

        One can make, I think, a very compelling argument that PED users were cheating, and that can help steer your opinion. And certainly with airline pilots, doctors and bankers, we really want to see them all play by the rules.

        I think that art is an exception. There is always a tension in art between following established protocols and breaking the rules to create great art. And while a lot of great art is fully mainstream, much significant art is not. Art that is “ground breaking,” pretty much by definition, is breaking some rules.

        That said, most (and I’m talking over 90% here) bloggers aren’t natural born writers or great artists. We all benefit from knowing the rules; they actually do make you a better writer; having a larger tool kit always makes you better.

        And I would say that most art that breaks the rules does so fully understanding those rules. It is a rare writer, indeed, that can spin gold without training.

      3. I think a writer needs to have enormous talent before he can allow himself the ‘expression’ of little or no punctuation. Hemingway anyone? In the same way that the most talented artisits, such as Picasso for example, went through the more classical stage before finding their own voice. Only once you have proven you have impeccable grammar can you allow yourself to disregard it. In my humble opinion, naturally ;-)

  19. I do love this cartoon! I occasionally use semicolons but not often. The reason being is I can’t always remember if I’m using it correctly or not. When in doubt I try to keep my sentences relatively simple and easy to understand. I have seen this comic by the Oatmeal and I love it! I think I need to revisit it a couple of times and try to memorize it a little better this time. lol ;)

  20. The Oatmeal rocks. :)
    I like semi-colons, although I usually use m-dashes instead. Some of it depends on the situation, of course, but I think a lot of it is stylistic choice.

  21. I’d like to see a post about exclamation marks! I’m constantly having to go back and edit them out! It usually means I have not found the right word or turn of phrase to get my meaning across without that crutch, the exclamation!

    1. Yes I know what you mean. When I leave a comment, it just seems to need that extra something at the end. I seem to alternate between exclamation marks and smiley faces. I will leave this comment with nothing more than a full stop and see how I cope.

  22. Please, PLEASE teach people the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’/’there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. Seeing people write these things wrong is the most irritating writing mistake other than atrocious spelling.

  23. Sure, it is important to use correct punctuation (and grammar) in your content. But what frustrates me at times is the lack of general proofreading and editing I see in some posts. When I write a post I spell check, proofread, spell check some more, proofread some more and more…several times. Then I have my wife take a look at my content and yes, she always finds something that needs to be corrected. Writing text is much like writing program code, where the person doing the writing is too close to the content (or code) and that can make proofreading (and dubugging) difficult. That’s why, in both of those worlds, and extra set of eyes always helps. Just as I don’t want a software tester to find errors in my program code, I NEVER want a reader to find errors in my posted content!