“Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt is more than curt when it comes to semicolons — and he’s not alone. For some reason, this little grammatical critter seems to ignite passionate debate about both its usefulness and its legitimacy — whether it truly holds a rightful place on the page.
Why the pros and cons? Probably because the semicolon is neither fish nor fowl: It’s more or less a hybrid of a period and a comma; this means it’s less than a period and more than a pause. The bottom line stylistically? When it comes to its place on the page, it’s stronger than a comma, but not as final as a period.
To use or not to use? Being partial to the semi myself, I tend to sprinkle them perhaps too liberally through the tracks of my tears and ideas on the page. Here’s an overview of the four main uses of a semicolon as a guide for us all:
To link independent clauses when using a comma/coordinating conjunction construction would be weaker stylistically:
“Dancing is for the birds; the Chicken Dance is for weddings.”
To separate a statement from a question or when a shift in tone is needed:
“Stop fooling around; or should I call your mother?”
To separate clauses when the second clause of a compound sentence is introduced by a conjunctive adverb:
“I enjoy baseball; however, my favorite sport is swimming.”
To separate series and clauses containing internal punctuation — usually commas:
“My preferred places to spend time include baseball, basketball, and soccer fields; bistros, movie theaters, and Las Vegas.”
In the first three uses, the elements on both sides of the semicolon can stand alone as sentences. This makes sense because, with the exception of #4 applications, semicolons are used only to connect independent clauses.
Here’s a simple little trick: Substitute a period where you think a semicolon should go. If both elements can stand alone as sentences, then they can be joined by a semicolon if you feel it’s more effective stylistically. If either element can’t stand alone as a complete sentence, then you’re better served using a comma instead of a semicolon.
Now equipped with semicolon savvy, let’s write on!