One of my observances of human behaviour is the tendency for people to throw semicolons in sentences wherever they seem to look pretty.

The semicolon is the most misused punctuation mark in English history.

Only “comprised of” rivals its propensity of misuse.

There are only two rules you need to follow with regard to semicolons. The first is far more common than the second:

  1. A semicolon separates independent clauses (that means a clause that can stand on its own as a sentence).
  2. A semicolon separates items in a list where commas would make the sentence confusing. 

Examples of Rule 1:

I’m going to the movie tonight; I can’t wait to see it.

There’s no real need to put a semicolon here instead of a period and new sentence, but this is proper use. In Rule 1 cases, you can always switch a semicolon for a period and new sentence.

Using semicolons in place of periods is best when the two independent clauses are related.

I love to speak my mind; that’s why I do it.

When we use terms such as “however” and “namely” to join two independent clauses, we use a semicolon and a comma.

There are a few places I want to go; however, I’m not sure I have time for them.

Those are two sentences, two independent clauses, joined by “however” and split by a semicolon.

Examples of Rule 2:

Semicolons are a very useful tool to make lists read more clearly.

Look at this mess if we try to use commas:

The party has people coming from Vancouver, British Columbia, Calgary, Alberta, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Toronto, Ontario.

A semicolon cleans that up:

The party has people coming from Vancouver, British Columbia; Calgary, Alberta; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Toronto, Ontario.

Think of a semicolon as grouping like items in a list.

I have three goals in life: discover who I am, perhaps through Buddhism or another religion; find out what happiness means to me, which seems like a pretty challenging task, especially considering my current state; and marry my true love, who is the best person I have ever met.

A colon introduces the list and semicolons separate the subjects. Without semicolons, this would be messy and hard to read.

Examples of incorrect usage:

I’m going there for one reason; to talk to him.

That is a semicolon in place of where a colon should be. Semicolons do not introduce things; colons do!

I’m bringing a bunch of things to the party; soup, cake and plates.

Again, introducing things is what a colon does, not a semicolon.

Our store has the best selection in the country; fulfilling your every desire.

That semicolon is where a comma should be.

Remember, both clauses surrounding a semicolon need to be full sentences on their own.

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Posted by Stewart Burnett

Journalist, stutterer, rockhounder, painter.

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