How to use the semicolon

The Semicolon 

When reading a passage of text aloud, it is important to make breaks in order to take a breath and to enable the audience to follow your argument. Every good orator knows that much can be ‘said’ in the silence of the breaks because the audience needs time to ‘digest’ the spoken words. Although written text is not quite the same, it is important to break up the text with punctuation marks, otherwise the reader may soon lose interest. 

What is a semicolon?

A semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark used to indicate a break in the text. It is usually said that a semicolon is stronger than a comma but weaker than a full stop (full point). Proofreaders and editors frequently come across sentences that are excessively long, some of which have been known to exceed 50 words. Such sentences often have to be read several times in order to understand what the reader is trying to say. These lengthy sentences can be improved by splitting them into shorter ones and/or dividing a sentence by using a semicolon. 

Uses of the semicolon 

1.To divide clauses within a sentence

In its simplest form, a sentence consists of a simple statement with a subject, finite verb and usually an object; for example, The participants answered the questionnaire. Such a sentence needs no punctuation marks until the full stop at the end. However, a complex sentence consists of two or more clauses which are separated by a semicolon. Here is an example: A hundred volunteers participated in the project; they were recruited from the same town. Please note that a capital letter is not used after a semicolon unless the word is a proper name. Although these two clauses could stand as sentences in their own right, they are very short, and if they were written as separate sentences they would give a disjointed effect. In this sentence, the semicolon could be replaced by a conjunction; for example,

A hundred volunteers participated in the project and were recruited from the same town.

However, in this case, the semicolon is more effective than the conjunction as it separates two pieces of information under the same topic. Sometimes, an em dash can be used in this situation if an even stronger impact is required. 

2.To separate items or phrases in a list

If each item in a list is just one or two words, it is common practice to separate such items with commas; for example,

The following are Celtic languages: Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh.

However, if each ‘item’ in a list comprises many words, a semicolon should be used; for example,

People in the following categories are entitled to free travel on buses: persons over the age of 65 who are not in full-time employment; persons who, for medical reasons, cannot have a driving licence; and people with mobility problems. 

It can be seen that commas are needed in describing one of the categories; therefore, it could cause confusion to separate the items themselves with commas. 

3. In conjunction with a comma when separating two clauses

Here are some examples of this usage: 

Torrential rain and storm-force winds are predicted for the next few days; therefore, the railway line has been closed as a safety precaution.  

The experiment may be conducted only under certain conditions; for example, when conditions of temperature and humidity are suitable. 

4. In citations

The semicolon is used in conjunction with the comma to separate names and dates in citations. Here is an example:

(Macintosh & Smith, 1996; Riley, 2002)

Notice that a comma separates the name and date, and a semicolon separates the two citations. With regard to citations, the style guide to whichever referencing system is being used should be consulted. 

Is the semicolon interchangeable with the colon?

Definitely not ! These two punctuation marks have a completely different function. As preciously explained, a semicolon separates clauses within a sentence, whereas a colon tells the reader that a list is coming next. A colon looks forward to a list or an example. 

Is the semicolon interchangeable with the comma?

Generally no. They have different functions. As previously explained, the semicolon is used to separate clauses within a sentence, whereas the comma is used to indicate a break within a clause or sentence. 

Is the semicolon interchangeable with the full stop?

This depends on the length of the sentence. As previously illustrated, the semicolon can be used to separate two or more clauses within in sentence. In a comparatively short sentence, if a semicolon is replaced by a full stop it will create a disjointed and ‘staccato’ effect, thereby breaking the flow of the text. However, if a sentence is very long, even when semicolons are used to separate clauses, it may be necessary to split the sentence into multiple sentences, but always taking care that each sentence contains a finite verb. Ideally, a sentence should consist of about 20 to 30 words. Shorter sentences can break the continuity, while longer ones can lead to lack of clarity.

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