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.