Posted: April 15th, 2014, 8:32 am   By: Sammie Schweissguth

“Your papers all suck, Margaret … shallow insights, stupid citations, and you persist in using semicolons where commas would suffice!”—a writing lesson mixed with motivational speaking in “Four Dead Batteries”

This week, we examine the semicolon.

Along with the colon, the semicolon is one of the most frequently misunderstood punctuation marks. It’s kind of like a washcloth: We all know there’s one lying around, but we never really think we need to use it—so we just scrub our nether regions with our hands. Well, no more. Today we shake the dust out of that rag and start doing things the right way.

The basic function of the semicolon is to separate ideas that are related to each other. It indicates a greater separation that a comma conveys but less than the separation indicated by a period. Semicolons have three common uses:

  1. They separate items in a list when the items are long or have some punctuation within them. In cases like these, it’s often best to separate the list into complete sentences—unless you’re going for a particular literary effect.
    • Ex) Little Billy’s dad won’t let him do lots of things: wipe muddy boots all over the car’s leather interior; physically abuse his older brother with plastic implements; or drink sweet, delicious, brown bath water.
  2. Semicolons link two independent clauses when each lacks a coordinating conjunction like and, but, or for. If you do have a coordinating conjunction, use a semicolon only if extensive punctuation is present in one of the clauses (as in the previous example).
  3. Use semicolons when linking two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb like however, furthermore, or therefore.
    • Ex) Mustang Wanted can’t afford cable (or a sensible pseudonym); therefore, he has to find creative ways to amuse himself.

Now you’re a semi-pro with semicolons.