Have your papers been returned with circles around the semi-colons? Have you ever used a semi-colon because you couldn’t decide what punctuation to use? Is your motto, “If in doubt, use a semi-colon”?
If so, you’re not alone.
Semi-colons are arguably the most misused punctuation in writing; they can be quite confusing.
Notice that semi-colon I just used? It is separating two independent clauses, or complete sentences.
Semi-colons are used primarily to connect independent clauses and to separate items in a list. To understand how to use with independent clauses, let’s review what an independent clause is.
WHAT IS A CLAUSE?
A clause is a group of words containing a subject and a predicate. A predicate is the verb or verb phrase:
Examples of Predicates:
She dances. – verb-only predicate
Ben reads the book. – verb + direct object predicate
Ben’s mother, Felicity, gave me a present. – verb + indirect object + direct object predicate
She listened to the radio. – verb + prepositional object predicate
They elected him president. – verb + object + predicate noun predicate
She met him in the park. – verb + object + adjunct predicate
She is in the park. – verb + predicate prepositional phrase predicate
(ex. from Wikipedia.org/predicate)
Now that you understand clauses, lets look at the two types of clauses: dependent and independent.
Independent clauses, or main clauses, can stand alone as a sentence. They will always include a subject and a verb:
The window is open.
The ball broke the window.
The dog barked.
I went to the gym.
Dependent clauses cannot stand alone as a sentence. They are dependent on other words to complete a sentence. It would be incorrect to separate the two clauses with a semi-colon.
Below the dependent clause is italicized:
Because the window is open, the room feels cold.
I’d love to go to dinner, although I’m not dressed appropriately.
When you fix the tire, we’ll ride our bikes around the block.
USING SEMI-COLONS WITH INDEPENDENT CLAUSES
Semi-colons are used to separate two independent clauses when the ideas of the two clauses are closely related.
Education is an elusive word; it often means different things to different people.
Turn the lights out when you leave; we’re wasting too much energy.
This photograph is not at all realistic; it uses dreamlike images to convey its message.
In the above examples, the second independent clause offers more information, closely relating the two.
This photograph is not at all realistic, it uses dreamlike images to convey its message.
You cannot separate two independent clauses with a comma, or you would create a comma splice, which is incorrect punctuation. However, you could use a period and create two sentences. This would create a longer pause than a semi-colon.
This photograph is not at all realistic. It uses dreamlike images to convey its message.
USING SEMI-COLONS FOR ITEMS IN A SERIES
Most often, commas are used to separate items in a series. Sometimes though, the items themselves contain commas, so using a semi-colon to separate the items makes the sentence clearer and easier to read.
I bought shiny, ripe apples; small, sweet, juicy grapes; and firm pears.
I have been to Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon in the North; Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi in the South; and New York, Connecticut, and Maine in the North East.
The present officers are Hazel Duff, president; Jason Rich, secretary; and, Tom Sales, treasurer.
Using semi-colons to separate the items above prevents confusion that might come from an abundance of commas.
FINAL THOUGHTS: USE WITH CAUTION
Take care not to use a semi-colon too often. They can become distracting if overused, and an essay with too many semi-colons can become tedious and choppy to read.
A semicolon belongs in each of the following sentences. Determine where the semicolon belongs. Then select the word that comes just before the semicolon.
1. It is raining outside I will bring my umbrella with me.
2. There is a lot of financial aid around you just have to know where to look for it.
3. It’s such a beautiful day I will walk in Memorial Park.
4. We will play tennis tomorrow then we will go out for dinner.
5. She had very high grades in high school she applied to Harvard University.
(Some examples and exercises from The St. Martins’ Handbook and OWL Online Writing Lab. )