How to wrangle semicolons

by Anna Tarnow

I love semicolons. They’re versatile little helpers that can go where either periods or commas might otherwise be placed. But you also need to be careful with them. You can’t just stick them into any sentence for no reason at all. Below is a list of the right times and places to use semicolons.

  1. In between two grammatically complete sentences that deal with the same idea (i.e., The dragon hoarded treasures in his cave; his acquisitions included a giant ruby, a magic sword, and a submarine.)
  2. In lists that have commas in the items (i.e., The dragon muttered his inventory in his sleep.  “One giant ruby, stolen from Narnia; one magic sword, stolen from Finn and Jake; and one submarine, stolen from the US Navy.”)
  3. Before “however” (and the “however” must be followed by a comma) (i.e. The dragon was very happy with his hoard; however, he sometimes felt like his obsessive treasure-counting was getting in the way of his love life.) Note: This applies to “therefore” as well.
  4. Before a coordinating conjunction (i.e., The dragon had met someone from GoldenMatchDragon.com last week; but they hadn’t hit it off and he decided to take a break from online dating.)

Some semicolon warnings:

  1. Use semicolons judiciously. One every couple of paragraphs is fine.
  2. Don’t end an introductory clause or phrase with a semicolon. This is because semicolons say “this idea is complete” when placed after a clause or phrase, and introductory clauses and phrases are not complete—they’re setting up for the real idea that comes after them.

Info drawn from Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (11th edition) by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. It’s a pretty handy book—I highly recommend getting a copy!

Anna Tarnow is a junior majoring in English and enjoys working on the Pilot newspaper, where she is editor-in-chief.

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