One of the main functions of punctuation is to clarify writing in a way which words alone can’t. Three ways in which punctuation achieves this clarification are:
• by separating, grouping or linking words
• by differentiating between similar words and structures
• representing emotional aspects of speech
We’ve looked at how to use the full stop and the comma. Today is the turn of the seductive semi-colon.
Why seductive, you may ask? Because the semi-colon seems so sophisticated, so professional, that it’s tempting to use it all the time.
The best place to use a semi-colon, though, is when a full stop is too strong and a comma too weak to create a break in a sentence that produces just the pause one needs. If you need to link two closely related sentences, which are yet too independent to be separated by only a comma, that’s when you turn to the semi-colon. Consider:
He ate his peas with his knife. He had forgotten he had visitors.
Although the use of the full stop here is grammatically correct, these two thoughts are so closely linked that the break seems to jar the reader.
Yet they are complete and independent sentences, so a comma won’t do: He ate his peas with his knife, he had forgotten he had visitors.
This is when you use a semi-colon:
He ate his peas with his knife; he had forgotten he had visitors.
This links the two thoughts – independent, yet related – in an appropriate rhythm. Thus, a semi-colon works best in a position where neither a comma nor a full stop will do.
A semi-colon can also be used when a paragraph is choppy with an over-use of full-stops. Too many short sentences and full stops create a staccato feel to a paragraph. The semi-colon smoothes the cadence and yet allows each thought its independence. And a semi-colon shouldn’t be used if you link your thoughts with a conjunction (words such as and, or, but, so, while, because).
As seductive as it is, try not to become addicted to the semi-colon. There is the danger that you can slip into the habit of linking half-thoughts, rather than developing a single, more complex, thought. Commas and full stops serve their purpose well; allow the semi-colon to keep its mystique by using it sparingly.
"The Art of Punctuation" by Noah Lukeman
"Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Puntuate" by George Davidson
"Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lyn Truss
Free image from ClipArt