I always feel like the semicolon is one of the more sophisticated punctuation marks, and also that it scares people a little.
It tends to be used more in formal writing, but it has its place in fiction too. It can be very useful to subtly convey a relationship between two thoughts without using more words.
And there is no need to fear it if you know how to use it correctly.
What is a semicolon?
When used in a sentence, a semicolon usually signals a relationship between two complete clauses that’s closer than two separate sentences.
It is somewhere between a full stop, which signals the end of a sentence, and a comma, which is a pause. And it can take both of their characteristics.
Let’s go through the different examples.
Between two complete clauses
To narrow the relationship between two complete clauses, use a semicolon instead of a full stop.
We didn’t see the movie; the theatre was closed.
Call me next week; I should have an answer for you by then.
Or when a coordinating conjunction (for, and, but, nor, or, so, or yet) is left out.
The senior students were allowed to leave school early, but the juniors were not.
The senior students were allowed leave school early; the juniors were not.
Or you can use it to draw attention to the parallel relationship or contrast of the clauses.
The dog was riddled with fleas; he was malnourished.
The lawn was well-manicured; the house was dilapidated.
Before a conjunctive adverb
Conjunctive verbs are words such as however, namely, and moreover, thus, e.g., for example, i.e., and that is. Use a semicolon when they come before a complete sentence.
I didn’t like it; however, I could see that she did.
She completed her work; that is, she copied it from her sister.
We had finished early; therefore, we decided to go to the beach.
In a list with many commas when units also contain commas
Use semicolons between units to prevent ambiguity in lists and to keep the units clear.
The CEO, Sarah Butler; an executive director, Mike Smith; and the company secretary, Paul Watkins; were all at the meeting.
The three activities they chose were sailing; rock climbing and abseiling; and fishing.
In the search for their father, which had been going on for many years, they asked every family member; researched the archives, which turned up with nothing; and even visited the town he was born in, and found that no one remembered him.
Note the final semicolon, not a comma.
You don’t need to use semicolons in a list just because the units are long.
But in a sentence with a lot of commas already, a semicolon can indicate a stronger division.
They walked down the road, which was their usual route, and saw the dog; but the dog wasn’t moving, and looked at them with sad eyes.
When not to use a semicolon
To replace a colon
I have one goal; to stop eating sugar. ✘
I have one goal: to stop eating sugar. ✔
When a dependent clause comes before an independent one
Although they wanted to; they didn’t do it. ✘
Although they wanted to, they didn’t do it. ✔
If you have written a book in New Zealand English and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of fiction and non-fiction books. I can discuss with you where your book is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your book shine, please contact me on: www.clearlingo.co.nz/contact.
I would love to hear from you.
Marja Stack is a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. Her business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of fiction or non-fiction books. For more information or enquiries for how she can help you make your book shine, please see her website: www.clearlingo.co.nz.
New Zealand English Series
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