I want to introduce you to a dear friend of mine. She is often neglected; people like to disregard her as pretentious or unnecessary, or they are afraid of her because they don’t understand her.
Readers, please meet the semicolon. Don’t be shy. I promise she won’t hurt you. In fact, I guarantee that you will find her useful indeed. But first you have to understand her purpose.
Astute readers probably noticed that I used a semicolon in my first paragraph. I encourage you to go back for a minute to that usage and try to figure out why I chose to put her there. Then come back here and read the rest of this post. Honestly, with most things related to language and grammar, sometimes the best way to learn is to see the rules out in the wild and think critically about what you’re reading to figure them out. Instruction books are certainly useful, but they can only provide a few examples because of limited space.
Anyway, moving on from that tangent, let me tell you the main usage of the semicolon: she connects two closely related independent clauses (basically, sentences that could stand alone). She is related to her cousins the period, comma, and colon, but her purpose is more subtle, more complex.
Let’s revisit those sentences from the first paragraph of this post:
She is often neglected; people like to disregard her as pretentious or unnecessary, or they are afraid of her because they don’t understand her.
There is quite a lot going on here, but let’s focus on where the semicolon is used. The first sentence is putting forth an idea. What follows the semicolon expounds upon that idea but is also a complete thought on its own:
She is often neglected. People like to disregard her as pretentious or unnecessary, or they are afraid of her because they don’t understand her.
By replacing the semicolon with a period, the meaning of the paragraph doesn’t really change at first glance; a reader would still understand the second sentence is expanding on the idea in the first. But it does change the rhythm, and it does suggest the two thoughts are more separate than they actually are.
Let’s change to a simpler example:
The cat pounced. The dog ran.
The cat pounced, and the dog ran.
The cat pounced; the dog ran.
This better illuminates the difference. These two sentences are simple, just subjects and verbs. Before I explain the slightly different meaning of the period, comma, and semicolon here, take a minute to consider it on your own. Try reading the sentences out loud; they should sound different when you do.
In the first one, the period is a definitive separation. The actions of the cat and dog may or may not be related; surrounding sentences in the story would have to help clarify that for us. In the second one, the comma makes the cause and effect explicit. No interpretation is needed from the reader. In the third one, the semicolon implies that the actions of the cat and dog are related because it creates less of a pause between the two sentences than the period. But it still leaves some wiggle room for reader interpretation, particularly in regard to how the two events are related (which is useful/apparent in more complex stories).
All the examples are grammatically correct, but the punctuation allows a writer to change the meaning, to change the rhythm, to decide how forthright to be. The semicolon is an incredibly useful piece of punctuation for a writer.
Yet she is the one that I most often hear disparaged. I have read blog posts from best-selling authors decrying the semicolon and why they’ll never use her (I won’t go into how harshly I judged those writers, but I will say I don’t think a writer at any level should completely discount any type of punctuation). She is often cited as one of the most confusing pieces of punctuation. I think this is because she is an in-between—not quite a period, not quite a colon, not quite a comma. She combines elements of all three of those, but that makes it hard to grasp her usage. It’s not very concrete. She is often replaced with the more definitive period.
That’s not a bad thing. But punctuation usage should not be dictated by misunderstanding or fear. It should always be a conscious choice. And I am not the only one taking up the semicolon’s cause. She has myriad other usages; I encourage you to familiarize yourself with all of them, to start experimenting with her in your writing. You might use her improperly at first; that’s okay. She’s patient. All she asks is that you try.