How to Use Semicolons

This is part three in our original grammar series.

Semicolons, or, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing,” have been given a bad name. You and Kurt may avoid them if you choose. If, however, you’ll open your hearts to the tiny mutants, I think you’ll find they’re really rather “useful little chaps”—in the words of Abraham Lincoln.

Think you know how to use a semicolon? Take this test and find out. Choose the correctly punctuated sentence.

1) A. If this segment on semicolons is about porcupines; I’m not reading it.
B. The author wouldn’t write about porcupines again, people would get bored.
C. She did forget to mention the adorable word for a baby porcupine, though; porcupette.
D. But that’s the last thing she’ll say on the subject; she is moving on.

2) A. Writing these tests looks fun; easy; and simple.
B. Writing these tests is actually hellishly, distressingly difficult; drains you of your will to live, ruins your morning; noon, afternoon, and night; and leaves you wondering when dinner is.
C. Writers struggle against the following: overstatement; hyperbole; lack of snacks.
D. Writers continue thanks to their remarkable ability to persevere in the face of hunger, fluorescent lights, and doubt; the encouragement of their coworkers, who are unfailingly kind; the fluffy dog, whose name is Ellie, at their feet; and the pretzels they forgot were in their pocket.

3) A. The editorial team thinks that Ellie’s fluffy mane should be dyed pink, however, they are not sure her owner would like that.
B. The editorial team decided that discretion was the better part of valor, accordingly, they decided to just imagine Ellie with a pink mohawk.
C. The imaginary Ellie looked very cute with a pink mohawk, hence, there was renewed debate.
D. It is sometimes better to ask forgiveness than permission; however, sometimes it is better to ask permission.

Answers: 1.d 2.d 3.d

ellie enotes mohawk

After some (clearly expert) Photoshopping, it’s a unanimous “yay” for eNotes Ellie getting a pink mohawk.

1. Semicolons are still not commas

The comma at the bottom of a semicolon is not an all-access pass to the comma party; it is a sometimes-maybe pass. Think of it like the Avengers. Though Bruce Banner can sometimes do Iron Man’s job, there are instances where the two really aren’t interchangeable and shouldn’t be confused.

The primary place a semicolon should go is between two independent clauses that don’t have a conjunction (e.g. and, but, etc.), though on occasion it’s okay to leave in the conjunction. For example, you could write I was confused about which of the handsome scientists turned into an uncontrollable green monster; I decided to find out by means of trial and error. You would be perfectly justified in replacing the semicolon with a period or an em dash—but you can’t replace it with a comma.

The good news is that the semicolon is a useful tool to fix your comma splices. A comma splice occurs when you connect two independent clauses without a conjunction, like this: My scientific experiment proved successful, it also destroyed New York City. Pop a semicolon in and poof! No more comma splice. Also no more city.

2. Semicolons are not colons

As with commas and scientist Avengers, semicolons and colons are occasionally interchangeable. The colon, however, is really more like Hawkeye: a one-trick pony whose usefulness is limited to only a handful of occasions.

Unlike a semicolon, which doesn’t specify the nature of the relationship of the two independent clauses you are connecting, a colon indicates that the second clause is an example of, directly explains, or emphasizes the point of the first clause. For example, you could use either a semicolon or a colon in the sentence Hawkeye’s inclusion among the Avengers is perplexing: he seems a mortal among gods. One should not, however tempted, write Hawkeye’s inclusion among the Avengers is perplexing: he does, however, have nice arms. When in doubt, try replacing a colon with the words “that is,” “specifically,” or “namely.” If your new construction makes sense, there’s a good chance you can go with a colon. If not, consider opting for a more multipurpose warrior: the semicolon.

3. Semicolons and lists

One place a semicolon can’t go is before a list. Only a colon will do in I think my chances are good with the following Avengers: Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. There is, however, a use for a semicolon when the internal punctuation of a series gets painfully complicated, perhaps as in I can’t believe you don’t think I could date the following Avengers: Thor, the Norse God, Captain America, the hero of WWII, and Iron Man, the billionaire playboy superhero. Resolve confusion with semicolons, as in Okay, I realize I might have been a little ambitious in thinking I could date the following Avengers: Thor, the Norse God; Captain America, the hero of WWII; and Iron Man, the billionaire playboy superhero.

4. I still don’t get why I would ever use a semicolon

You could use a semicolon to join two independent clauses (things that could function as full sentences on their own). A semicolon indicates a closer relationship between the ideas than a period would. For example, I could write Thor is the best Avenger. He is really attractive. He also has courage and fortitude of mind. With a period between all those ideas, I might simply be throwing out unrelated thoughts that occur to me about Thor. I could also write Thor is the best Avenger; he is really attractive. He also has courage and moral fortitude. But if I did that I’d be betraying the fact that I’ve based my assessment of his superiority primarily on his remarkable physical qualities, and the moral fortitude is really an afterthought.

The only other proper use for a semicolon is helping you sort out a list with crazy internal punctuation, like I argue that Thor is better than Captain America because he is, quite frankly, musclier; experiences—unlike his morally uninteresting counterpart—the occasional conflict of the soul; and wears a cape and shiny armor, but no silly-looking helmet with a chin strap.

5. Do I ever have to use a semicolon?

No. There are only a handful of places where the way you’ve constructed your sentence demands that you use a semicolon, and you can usually rewrite to avoid them without too much difficulty (though your life will be emptier for it). If you are determined to persist in your crusade against the semicolon, then here’s a list of constructions you must also avoid.

  • You can’t use transitional adverbs to join two independent clauses. (Yes, you say, this sounds like a real tragedy.) Let me clarify. You can’t write Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man decided to take a break and enjoy the Avengers hot tub, however, there was a shortage of towels. (See? It would be tragic if you couldn’t say that.) The comma is incorrect. Instead, you must write either They decided to enjoy the Avengers hot tub; however, there was a shortage of towels or They decided to enjoy the Avengers hot tub. However, there was a shortage of towels.
  • You have to rewrite lists to exclude internal punctuation, which means you can’t fit in any of those charming asides you wanted, and sentences like the comparison of Captain America and Thor above become boring constructions like I guess Thor is maybe better than Captain America because he is bigger, sort of complicated, and doesn’t wear a hat.