The semicolon is perhaps the most underused of punctuation marks and this may be due largely to confusion over its purpose and correct use. The simplest way of describing what a semicolon does is to signify a long pause. How long? The best answer I can give is somewhere between a comma and a full stop.
There are no precise guidelines and that is possibly one of the reasons behind them falling into disuse. Use of the semicolon certainly requires more judgement on the part of the writer than any other punctuation mark and even some experienced writers will admit to finding it the most difficult punctuation device to use correctly. Your initial response to my question might be “Who cares?” but that would be to underestimate the usefulness of the semicolon.
How to use the semicolon properly
Here are some of the ways this useful punctuation mark can be used:
- To join words, word groups and sentences that may be grammatically correct but still confusing for the reader. Take this example: “The history of the semicolon and colon is one of confusion because there are no precise rules governing their use and, furthermore, many writers would argue that both marks are stylistic rather than parenthetical devices, and can in any case be easily replaced by commas, full stops, dots and dashes. And there the argument rests.”
A few judicious semicolons would make this tangled sentence far easier to read: “The history of the semicolon and colon is one of confusion; there are no precise rules governing their use; writers would argue that both marks are stylistic rather than parenthetical devices and can easily be replaced by commas, full stops, dots and dashes. And there the argument rests.”
- To separate word groups in complicated lists that already contain (too many) commas, like this example: “Those attending the meeting included Dr Shayle, University of Liverpool, Dr Fawcett, Brunel University, Michael Doneit, Metropolitan Police and Phillip Carter, Head of Procurement, Columbia University, New York.”
While in most lists a comma is enough to separate the items, in longer or more complex lists like the one above, it is perfectly acceptable to use the semicolon to make the list more understandable and clearly show which institution each individual represents. The example above would become:
“Those attending the meeting included Dr Shayle, University of Liverpool; Dr Fawcett, Brunel University; Mr Michael Doneit, Metropolitan Police; and Phillip Carter, Head of Procurement, Columbia University, New York.”
- To emphasise contrasts and incongruity as in this example: “She was once awful at English; now she’s achieved an A grade at A Level.”
- To divide two phrases that are in themselves independent, but that are in some way linked (as in “The semicolon is necessary; I have just proved it.”)
Semicolon at risk
This is not the first time the misunderstood semicolon has been under threat. Having developed a hatred for the semicolon, George Orwell managed to write Coming Up For Air in 1939 without using a single one. Martin Amis managed to restrict his semicolon use to just one in his 1984 novel Money, while George Bernard Shaw complained of T E Lawrence that while he “threw commas about like a madman”, he hardly used semicolons at all. In fact, the uproar provoked by anti-semicolonists some years ago led to fears that the mark would become an endangered species and long before the Apostrophe Protection Society was established in 2001, a Society for the Preservation of the Semicolon was formed! This has been followed by Save the Semicolon and the Semicolon Appreciation Society.
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