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Red Pen Diaries: Semicolons Are Not Just for Winking

Admit it — you're afraid of semicolons.

Lots of folks, even professional writers, will cop to this phobia. No fear? Prove it (or engage in a little immersion therapy) by reviewing the following pairs of independent clauses and identifying the ones that would be better served by a semicolon than the period you see there now.

A. The milkweeds clearly needed watering. Their leaves were drooping in the blistering midday sun.

B. The hillside landscape glows rose-gold. The hummingbirds dart hither and yon among the pitcher sage.

C. The adolescent red-tailed hawk couldn't quite get his lines right. Instead of the piercing, high-lonesome cry heard in so many Westerns, all he managed was a squawk.

D. I saw a cat on the driveway devouring a lizard, the reptile's lower half contorting in protest as it disappeared between the predator's jaws. I recall there being a cat in our neighbor's house when we gave him his mail, but I couldn't be certain this was the one.

E. The Plumeria flower has a delicious vanilla-bean aroma. I'd like to make ice cream out of it.

Truth be told, once you understand their appeal, semicolons can be addictive. I frequently lament the lack of a semicolon where I believe the author lost his nerve and settled with the seemingly safer period. Missed semicolon opportunities abound in copywriting, particularly in headlines, even in our own office. Simon will ask me to look at his work and I'll say, "Ooh, that's an ideal spot for a semicolon," and he'll say, "Now, Julia, you know that will confuse the client."

I always relent, but consarnit, I think readers comprehend semicolons on an instinctive level, so I just don't understand why they have to be a sticking point. And since they're frequently ideal for transforming comma splices and run-on sentences into grammatically correct entities — in addition to separating entries in resumes — let's go there.

"There" for me was the Chicago Manual of Style (back when I was in reference publishing), but, God bless it, the Chicago Manual has a five-page main entry and 12 — 12! — subentries ("in elliptical constructions"; "with quotation marks, parentheses, brackets"; "with transitional adverbs" ... ), all manna to us word nerds. But for the sake of you normal people, the ones with lives, we'll consult the AP Stylebook, which devotes approximately half a page to the semicolon. It starts with:

"In general, use the semicolon to indicate a greater separation of thought and information than a comma can convey but less than the separation that a period implies." "In general" also happens to be where I'm heading with this, more specifically, "to link independent clauses" (those of you seeking "to clarify a series," etc., may want to see what our pal Grammar Girl has to say on the subject).

The AP continues, "To link independent clauses: Use a semicolon when a coordinating conjunction such as 'and,' 'but' or 'for' is not present: 'The package was due last week; it arrived today.'"

Another way to think about this is: Does the second independent clause follow hot on the heels of the first? Does the first clause make you expect a second? For instance, if you see "The newsletter wasn't merely informative," you anticipate something like: "it was also wildly entertaining." Here's another example, from the body copy of a Visa Signature print ad. The sentence "Just look in your wallet" — which makes the reader reckon he's about to find out why he should look in his wallet — is connected with a semicolon to "if your card says Visa Signature, you have instant access to dozens of perks ... "

As you may have noticed, you don't begin the sentence following the semicolon with a capital letter (unless the first word after the semicolon is a proper noun). In other words, do not emulate the gang over at Long-Term Care Quote, who (in their "Smart Money Tip" print advertorial) perpetrated this: "Who needs it; How to find the right policy." Who needs that erroneous capital? Not you.

Contrast Visa Signature's confident use of the semicolon with Stella Artois' timid "Of course it tastes better than other beers. We've had over 600 years to get the recipe right." The period between those two independent clauses is certainly adequate, but the semicolon would be more nuanced and, I think, more persuasive. Swap the period for the semicolon and the reader is almost dared not to read on.

It may be useful to reiterate the AP in noting that the semicolon is to the comma as the colon is to the period; both the colon and the period signal "stop," whereas the semicolon and the comma say, "More to come."

See how what followed the semicolon in the sentence above was essentially an explanation, an elaboration, on what preceded it? If so, you likely nailed that little exercise at the top of the page. To find out for sure, relay your answers (or anything else semicolon-related you'd like to share) in the comments below!


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 18th 2009, 1:02 AM
Comment by: Gregg H.
A and E are semicolon material; me thinks.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 1:37 AM
Comment by: Ginny A. (Tujunga, CA)
a, C and E.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 1:45 AM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
I think A, C, and E, but that answers follows a painful paring down of my first impulse of "ALL of them!" (It's too late for me; I already AM addicted to semicolons!)
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 2:40 AM
Comment by: Heather (Calgary Canada)
A and E
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 3:01 AM
Comment by: Ronald F. (Cape Town South Africa)
I agree with Heather H.; A & E
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 3:12 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
A and E for sure. B and C could use one too unless you think that only short independent clauses should be separated by a semicolon. Does the length of the clauses have any influence over your choice of punctuation?
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 4:13 AM
Comment by: Robert S.
I see nothing wrong with abundant use of the colon (if writers are very wordy:) the main effort in writing should be to express a thought or situation: the emotion of which, is understood by the reader (except for the use of arcane words:) which should require a venture into the dictionary.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 5:30 AM
Comment by: Tony M.
Methinks I can demonstrate my personal understanding in a practical manner: certainly the first pair warrants a semicolon as this would signal that the diagnosis that the milkweeds "needed watering" is linked with the symptom that "their leaves were drooping"; in pair C. the second statement regarding the "squawk" qualifies the prior stated belief of incorrect "lines" being uttered. Likewise, regarding unwarranted semicolons, I assess that in pair B. the only linkage is coincidental observation unless being reported as a list; the first comments involving the cat are unconnected with the second apart from the same species being involved, thus creating a potentially false link. However, the final statements in E. perhaps could be best served by replacing the period (an abrupt or full stop) with, for example, the words "such that". This action would link the 'prompt' with the 'desire' directly. It would be similar to me stating that using semicolons is a devilishly thorny issue such that I could get lost in the wasteland of grammatical justification. Alternatively, I believe semicolons are fun; I could make a statement about them.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 8:02 AM
Comment by: Pamela L.
A, C and E. All of them have essentially a statement and an elaboration that would be well-served with the use of semicolons as TonyM so ably pointed out.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 8:12 AM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
I say B and E.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Joyce S.
I think A for sure. The second sentence clearly refers back to the first.
C also, the two parts have a close connection.
At first I thought that E should have a semicolon, but looking at it again, and again, I don't think so.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 8:39 AM
Comment by: Deborah H. (Castleton, VT)
A and E
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Jean C. (Greer, SC)
A, C, and E. I will admit I was afraid of semicolons; I had not used them in years. I am reborn! ;)
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 8:48 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
I am in love with semicolons. Great article!! (Oh, no...2 exclamation points. I'll probably be written up somewhere).
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 9:02 AM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
Thank you for making me aware of this use of semicolons. After reading these sentences aloud, I go with the A & E crowd; I hear a longer pause between the sentences in B, C, & D. Am I right in thinking that the semicolon in my previous sentence is replacing ',because'?
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 9:21 AM
Comment by: roger D.
I say A and C.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
My formal education ended over 50 years ago; H.S. graduation in 1952. I don't recall much excercise in the use of semicolons.
I agree that A, C, & E are eledgible for semicolons. The context of the article containing B & D would determine whether semicolons would be beneficial in connecting those statements.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
Hmmm — I didn't get enough excercise in spelling either!
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Peter C. (Malibu, CA)
I have a work colleague who insists on using semi-colons to separate lists of associated items. They are not necessarily clauses so it's technically irking; I'm always pulling them out. He says it's his style; to me it's like not holding your fork correctly.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 10:30 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
A and E for sure. I like that the semi-colon is indicative of something "more to come."
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Barbara D M. (Torrance, CA)
Well, I'm gong to go whole hog and say that I'd put semicolons in all of them--they just seem to "read easier" that way!
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Paul S. (Boulder Creek, CA)
Every ten years we should all schedule a semi-colonoscopy to check for splices and run-ons.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
a, c and e. I, too, love semi-colons, colons as well.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
A and C only; making ice cream doesn't do it for E.
I love the detail. Maybe I'm a "word-nick"?
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Kari E.
I thought A and E and probably C.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 11:58 AM
Comment by: Denise G. (Downers Grove, IL)
A,C and E. My college English composition professor talked at length aboutthe semicolon; so frequently that I presented her with a semicolon-shaped cake for her birthday! You try frosting a double layered period and comma! With something like a gleeful expression on her face, my professor clapped her hands together and exclaimed "Ohhh, that's sooooo..... (pause) wierd!"
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Kathleen Q. (Calgary Canada)
Yes to A and E. I am very fond of the semicolon and think I sometimes over-use it; no more! Thanks for the great article.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 12:13 PM
Comment by: Gretchen H. (Racine, WI)
A and C. I'm not convinced of E, but could be talked into it.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 2:20 PM
Comment by: William M. (Chevy Chase, MD)
A, C, and E. Although I think semicolons are dangerous; they can clog up otherwise spirited prose with confusingly different thoughts.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 3:56 PM
Comment by: Fount H. (Tahlequah, OK)
A,C, and E; Without question.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 4:03 PM
Comment by: Bruce S. (San Rafael, CA)
A, C, and E would benefit from semicolons.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 4:31 PM
Comment by: Varman S. (New Haven, CT)
A,C and E.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 4:48 PM
Comment by: lynn G.
A, C, and E. Definitely! When will you tell us if we're right?
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 5:27 PM
Comment by: Daniel B. (Bozeman, MT)
To my ear, A, C, and E sound better with semicolons. Lynn, I suspect you know there isn't an absolute correct or incorrect with respect to semicolon usage.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 6:14 PM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
An excellent food for thought it is. I would love to use the semicolon in A,C,D,and E.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 6:30 PM
Comment by: Julia R.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
And the answer is ... drumroll ... A, C and E. Thank you all for playing!
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 6:39 PM
Comment by: Sheila C.
A,C and E get my vote.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 6:47 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Denise G.
I agree with you. The change from thinking to doing is too abrupt for me so I didn't choose E.
For me and Denise it's A and C only.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 12:27 AM
Comment by: Jeff M. (New York, NY)
A and E
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 12:34 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Roger Dee and Denise G.

I agree with you two that it is A and C only.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 10:49 AM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
Agreed, there's a place for everything, and examples A, C, and E are good places for semi-colons. But it depends on the context, doesn't it. I'm writing a YA novel where I'm constantly in a young girl's head; semi-colongs and especially colons seem way too formal and stuffy for her thought processes.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 11:20 AM
Comment by: S. A. (Montreal Canada)
A and E.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 11:50 AM
Comment by: JoAnn (Naperville, IL)
Not a great fan of short sentences; I love semicolons!
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 2:17 PM
Comment by: Eleanor C.
A and C get my vote.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 3:13 PM
Comment by: Caroline S. (Loveland, OH)
A, C and E are screaming for semicolons; I don't think they can live without such attention to detail!
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 5:01 PM
Comment by: Delia R. (Miami Beach, FL)
A, C, and E are my choices; I am on the fence for B. ;-)
Sunday August 23rd 2009, 4:49 PM
Comment by: Mary K. (Wooster, OH)
I say A,C,D,and E.

Also, I enjoyed the humor of "colonoscopy," which I intend to
plagiarize shamelessly!

Mary K (Wooster,OH)
Sunday August 23rd 2009, 4:51 PM
Comment by: Mary K. (Wooster, OH)
Correction, please: I meant to write "semi-colonoscopy."
Wednesday September 23rd 2009, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Radames M. (Staten Island, NY)
A and C for sure. I suppose a Yes vote for E can be made but I will hold back on it.
Wednesday September 23rd 2009, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Brenda S.
I love to use semicolons; unfortunately, I'm afraid of them. I sprinkle them throughout my papers, then I let the word processing program take them all out. The WP program has no better idea than I do how to use them, so I usually put a few back in. I try to use them with verve and assurance; the professors don't mess with them. I never had formal English classes; my teachers were sweet hippie types who thought that learning folk music was more important than learning the parts of speech. I decided to return to school at age 47 to get Masters degree and eventually a PhD in communication research. I can barely write well enough to stay in the program. No one, however, can deny my enthusiasm! (The professors will not let me slide about using "however" however; they slam me every time.) Practice makes fairly good with semicolons; I plan to keep using them. Even if I'm occasionally WRONG.
Wednesday September 23rd 2009, 8:47 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Now we have the opinion of a couple more brilliant respondents:
Radames M
Elinore C
Kcecelia
Grechen H
Joyce S
me
My heart is gladdened that at least six people agree that the answer is ONLY A and C.
That connection between the aroma of a flower and the making of ice cream is too tenuous for me (and the others).
NEW QUESTION:
How about the use of ellipsis for a more informal connector?
Monday March 22nd 2010, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
A and E and maybe C.

And that about the emdash? Do they always have to travel in pairs?
Monday March 22nd 2010, 1:34 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'm a fan of the semi-colon, but flunked this test. Don't know how I missed this article.

I'll admit to having chosen only A and B. I put B into context, I presume.

C, as someone said, the connection is too tenuous. And the sentence about the hawk? I prefer the separation of the period. 'Instead' makes the difference stand out.

I used the 'and' as a guide, rather than 'but'. I think the 'but' made too much contrast in my mind to use a semi-colon.

Not saying never ever with a 'but' idea though. No No...
Monday March 22nd 2010, 1:41 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
About the semi-colonoscopy...

Is that the one done without anesthetic? As one who is required to have the full one every so often, I wonder if my doc would do that...

Nah, I want to be dozy...

Er... more dozy.

Love the humour!

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