Editing Pet Peeves #2: The Dreaded Semicolon

Editing Pet Peeves #2: The Dreaded Semicolon

Good Morning, Rebels, and welcome back to my life!

Wow, so the last grammar vlog was very well-liked by some of you and I got a lot of requests to do more of that. Today we’re going to talk about the semicolon, perhaps the most feared punctuation mark of all time.

There’s a lot of confusion about the semicolon out there in the world that I’ve been told exists outside of my office. Part of the confusion is that its name means half a colon, but its function in grammar is COMPLETELY different from that of a colon, so well done on crappy naming, grammarians.

It was called a semicolon because some stuffy British guy decided that the top half of it, the dot, was a top half of a colon, placed on top of a comma. Of course, it would be much more accurate and USEFUL to say that it’s a PERIOD placed on top of a comma. That would give us a closer approximation of what the semicolon actually DOES: it’s a greater pause than a comma, but a smaller pause than a period.

And in that case, we’d be better off referring to it as a semiperiod or a semistop, but since we’ve been calling it a semicolon for a few hundred years now…we’re kind of stuck with it.

Okay, let’s talk function. The first and most common usage of the semicolon is to join two independent clauses WITHOUT having to use a coordinating conjunction. Again, an independent clause is just a group of words that could stand as a sentence on its own, and a coordinating conjunction is this list of FANBOYS words here WHICH DOES NOT INCLUDE “THEN.”

When you’ve got two independent clauses, like “GARRETT WANTS TO SEE CAPTAIN AMERICA” and “HE HASN’T BEEN TO THE MOVIES IN A WHILE”, a comma isn’t strong enough to hold those clauses together. So you can use a comma AND a coordinating conjunction, OR you can just use a semicolon. If you use a semicolon, you specifically do NOT use a coordinating conjunction. That’s against the rules.

So why use a semicolon instead of a comma and conjunction? A semicolon is considered to build a stronger bond between your independent clauses. This means you use it when you want to more strongly associate two ideas in the reader’s mind, and you specifically do NOT use it when your independent clauses have nothing to do with each other.

In the example, “Garrett likes pink bubble baths; the color helps him relax,” the semicolon strengthens the connection between those two clauses. But in the example, “Garrett likes to bench press. He’s also a compulsive liar,” my bench pressing has nothing to do with my lying—unless I’m lying about bench pressing. (I am).

There’s two other important uses of the semicolon: the first is when you’ve got a sentence that has too many commas already but all the parts are connected. “When in Rome, I like to sneak into the Coliseum, and I pretend I’m a gladiator.” That sentence has too many commas and it’s awkward anyway. The bond of the second comma would be strengthened by removing the conjunction and using a semicolon instead, so: “When in Rome, I like to sneak into the Coliseum; I pretend I’m a gladiator.”

The other use of a semicolon is like a sort of super-comma, when you’re making a list of nouns that themselves contain commas. You’ll see this most often when you’re listing the names of places, like so: “I’ve been to exotic countries like Paris, France; Barcelona, Spain; Dublin, Ireland; and Keokuk, Iowa.”

There you go, that’s all the ways you can use a semicolon. When you look at it like that, it’s not so terrifying, is it? Just consider it one more tool in your belt to speak more clearly to your reader.

That’s it for today’s grammar update, Rebels. I’ll see you soon. Byyye.

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

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