How to Use Semicolons

semicolon cartoonI’ll pick up the challenge. This is how to use semicolons if you’re not typing an emoticon.

First, you need to understand independent clauses. An independent clause is a complete sentence–subject, verb, (and most often) object. Simple independent clauses are what children start writing, although their usefulness isn’t limited to young writers. I used to teach first graders to write, and my favorite student story went like this:

My dog is big. My dog is brown. My dog is bad breath.

If you’re writing for an older audience, though, too many simple sentences will make you sound like a first grader. For example:

I’m going to the bank. We need some money.

This is choppy, and while you can get away with a little of it, too much is unwise. There are a variety of ways you could fix the above sentence (you could just join it with a because), but I think it would sound more true to actual dialogue if you slipped a semicolon in there:

I’m going to the bank; we need some money.

Note that the two sentences are related, as regards ideas. Other examples:

  • She washed at the stream; she had to get the blood off her hands.
  • She wiped her tears; they had no time for sorrow.
  • The dog howled; it raised the hairs on the back of Jordan’s neck.

You can also use semicolons if one or both of the independent clauses are complex:

  • She held her breath; surely John wasn’t going to quit his job, not after all he’d gone through to get it.
  • The bank job was complicated but not actually difficult; Frank assured us all the bases were covered.

Important note: if the clauses are separated by a conjunction (I use the FANBOYS mneumonic: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) you would use a comma to combine the independent clauses instead.

  • The dog howled, and it raised the hairs on the back of Jordan’s neck.
  • She wiped her tears, for they had no time for sorrow.

Semicolons can be also used to link contrasting ideas, even if one of them is not an independent clause:

  • Marcy had three parents; Susie, only one.
  • Mary had a little lamb; Boris, a duck.

That will cover most of the uses needed for writing fiction. However, another correct use for semicolons is in a list which needs commas for correct punctuation. The semicolon is acting like a kind of super-comma here:

  • Next month we’re going to Tacoma, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and then down to Eureka, in California.
  • My three favorite dates are July 4, 1776; November 11, 1918; and December 25, of any year.
  • We brought eggs, milk, and hot dogs; tents, sleeping bags, and pillows; and Maisie made sure to grab the chocolate bars, marshmallows, and graham crackers.

This last sounds somewhat stilted for use in novels, but I’m doing a post on semicolons, and you should probably be aware of the rule. Eventually, it may be needed. You never know.

The last one I lifted straight from Wikipedia because it’s hardly used except in academic writing

  • “Between independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase or a conjunctive adverb. This is the least common use, and is mostly confined to academic texts.[9]
    • Everyone knows he is guilty of committing the crime; of course, it will never be proven.[10]
    • It can occur in both melodic and harmonic lines; however, it is subject to certain restraints.
    • Of these patients, 6 were not enrolled; thus, the cohort was composed of 141 patients at baseline.”

I have no idea why this needs a special rule, since it seems to be covered by combining independent clauses, but I thought I’d put it in there. It certainly can’t hurt. It does at least make it clear that the semicolon goes before the conjunctive adverb.

A cautionary note: Don’t go wild with semicolons. Keep it to a couple per page whenever possible, and less could be better (depending on content and readers). This is particularly difficult for me because I seem to think in semicolons, but annoying my readers is not my goal. This is one of the reasons I strongly recommend using beta readers.

I hope this was helpful. Keep writing. 🙂

Avid writer and reader of Faerie tales and noblebright fantasy.

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