Do you actually know what to do with a semi-colon? No - really?

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Semi-colons are the unsung heroes of the punctuation party, helping sentences make friends with one another whilst simultaneously preventing them from getting too handsy and over-familiar. However, nine times out of ten when I see a semi-colon, it’s in the wrong place. Like spotting turtles in the desert or a rump steak in a vegan restaurant, the incongruity of a misplaced semi-colon is semi-tragic, as their potential is fabulous when correctly employed. Please, for the sake of this suffering species, learn how to take proper care of your semi-colons. They’ll enhance your life (or at least, your writing) if you do…

Semi-colon in a list

But hang on. Before we get onto the really juicy stuff about how semi-colons can help your writing sing with sophistication (or stick out with slip-ups), there’s a glaring exception to get out of the way. There is one situation in which semi-colons can break their own rules, and that’s when a list is getting out of control (i.e. nesting commas within commas). A semi-colon, like a tiny superhero, can sweep in to tidy up and separate out confusing lists such as this one:

✘  Once Sylvia had tidied and priced the shelves, carried out an inventory of stock, not including those items ready to be shipped out, swept, mopped and dried the floor, and switched on all the tills, she was ready to open the shop.

✔︎  Once Sylvia had tidied and priced the shelves; carried out an inventory of stock, not including those items ready to be shipped out; swept, mopped and dried the floor; and switched on all the tills, she was ready to open the shop.

Thank you, dear semi-colons, for making this one exception.  We appreciate your services to tidying sentences.

Putting that specific usage to one side, though, let’s look at the main job of the semi-colon. Because with proper care and attention, you can raise your own semi-colons to be loving, helpful companions...Don't forget to try the quiz at the end of the post! 

What is a semi-colon?

For the purposes of this post, I’ve managed to capture a semi-colon from the wilderness and tape it down here for your closer inspection. Don’t worry: it can’t hurt you...

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Just as many humans look like a blend of their genetic ancestors, so does the semi-colon. Do you see the comma? And the full stop? Those are the features borrowed from its mum and dad. And again, like humans, it behaves a little bit like both its caregivers. To truly understand the semi-colon (as anyone who’s ever had therapy will know), we need to first look at the behaviour of its parents. 

Dad / How to use a full stop

A full stop is a brick wall between sentences. When you use a full stop, the two sentences on either side are like neighbours on a street. One house might be filled with dogs, oil paintings and Bach blaring on the radio, whilst the house next door could be filled with 50 young people listening to Drake, contouring their noses and taking selfies for Instagram. The neighbours are divided by brick walls, so they do not need to have anything in common. Full stops do the same job for sentences. It’s a total separation. Thank god for that! But for that same reason, you can’t just drop a brick wall in the middle of the kitchen while someone’s cooking pasta, and you can’t just bung a full stop within a sentence.

✔︎  Whether I’m walking, writing or waiting in line, the theme from Spiderman bounces relentlessly through my brain. I need help.

✘  Whether I’m walking, writing or waiting in line. The theme from Spiderman bounces relentlessly through my brain. I need help.

Mum / How to use a comma

A comma is a lover, not a fighter; it’s a joiner, not a separator. A comma is like one of many stepping stones across a lake, each one as important as the next in helping you traverse the entire, watery sentence. They are absolutely part of one cohesive thing. Commas hold together sentence fragments beautifully, but using a comma to separate two complete sentences is like replacing those opposing neighbours’ brick walls with stepping stones. Hello, disharmony: it’s simply not enough of a division.

✔︎  Whether I’m walking, writing or waiting in line, the theme from Spiderman bounces relentlessly through my brain. I need help.

✘  Whether I’m walking, writing or waiting in line, the theme from Spiderman bounces relentlessly through my brain, I need help.

What is a semi-colon used for?

So, the antisocial full stop and the community-focussed comma have very different lifestyles and behaviours. Somehow, though, they hit it off and happily spawn a cute little semi-colon. Congratulations to both families! The semi-colon takes on features of each of its parents, becoming more of a separation and a pause than a stepping-stone comma, but less of a brick wall than the full stop. Think of it more like a curtain drawn between two sentences

The rules of using a semi colon

1. A clear connection (like its comma mum)

A curtain would be no good between the dog-art-Bach house and the youth-contour-selfie house, because these guys would piss each other off. You need a wall to do that job. But if there are two neighbours (or sentences) with a closer relationship, they might actually quite like having a curtain instead of a wall. So, when you want to show a closer relationship (including cause and effect) between two sentences, you can use a semi-colon instead of a full stop or a connective.

✔︎  Irene’s ice cream parlour is open for business; excited locals are queuing round the block.

✔︎   The autumn breeze tickled his neck; he wrapped his scarf tighter.

✔︎   Studying at Oxford is highly competitive; it’s a prestigious university.

✘  Irene’s ice cream parlour is open for business; David Beckham has blond hair.

✘    Irene’s ice cream parlour is open for business; I’ve taken the day off work.

(NB: Even if I took the day off work to visit Irene’s ice cream parlour, because to be honest that does sound like something I'd do, the connection between the two sentences is not strong enough to use an understated semi-colon. A less clear relationship like this one requires a more robust connective, such as “Irene’s ice cream parlour is open for business, so I’ve taken the day off work.” Semi-colons are a subtle way of connecting clearly related sentences.)

2. Whole sentences only (like its full stop dad)

There must be two complete sentences on each side of a semi-colon. Sentence fragments or dependent clauses cannot be separated by a semi-colon, just as they can’t with a full stop. Try covering each side, one at a time, and reading the other side aloud: does it make grammatical sense on its own?

✔︎  Irene’s ice cream parlour is open for business; excited locals are queuing round the block.

✘  Irene’s ice cream parlour is open for business; which means that excited locals are queuing round the block.

✘    Irene’s ice cream parlour is open for business; excited locals queuing round the block.

3. No capital letterYou don’t need a capital letter after a semi-colon, unless the word usually requires one (i.e. if it’s ‘I’ or a proper noun like ‘Paris’, ‘Ellie’, or ‘Microsoft’).

✔︎  Irene’s ice cream parlour is open for business; excited locals are queuing round the block.

✘  Irene’s ice cream parlour is open for business; Excited locals are queuing round the block.

How to use a semi-colon

So, in summary: use a semi-colon to separated a muddled, comma-heavy list - OR - use a semi-colon like a lightly-drawn curtain between two related, complete sentences.Test your semi-colon skills with the quiz below!

Becky Kleanthous

Copywriter hire UK

Psst: need a writer who knows her way around a semi-colon? 

Right or wrong?  Have a go…

  1. Julie forgot her sister's birthday; It was a true calamity.

  2. Always check with a professional when foraging; toadstools can be poisonous.

  3. He sank to his knees; and the room seemed to swirl around him.

  4. If you take the dog out; remember to take poo bags.

  5. If your aloe vera plant has black patches, don't fret; simply move it into shade.

  6. Semi-colons needn't be stressful; when you remember the three golden rules.

  7. The sky clouded over; darkness fell on the city.

  8. The environment is a hot topic; Climate change is on every news channel.