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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.

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