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Monday, June 24, 2019

The Easiest Explanation of Semicolons ;)

Semicolons are probably the most misused and misunderstood form of punctuation. Which is ironic. Because they are actually one of the easiest.

Easier than dashes, easier than commas, easier than ellipses, quotation marks, colons, and even the interrobang (?!)

Here is all you really need to know:

Semicolons replace a period between complete sentences.

That's it.

If you know how to use a period, you know how to use a semicolon.

They make the complete sentences into one sentence. 

The problem isn't that they are actually that difficult. The problem is most of us weren't taught about them consistently in school and therefore they seem like this rare, elusive, convoluted punctuation symbol.

So when you are wondering if you can use a semicolon, do this simple test:

Can you put a period there?

If no, then you shouldn't use a semicolon.

If yes, then you can use a semicolon.

Got it?

Let's do a simple quiz. Below, some of the sentences use a semicolon properly and others improperly. Can you tell which are right and which are wrong?

1. I went to the store; she went to bed.
2. He hated turtle soup; because he found it barbaric.
3. Lucy closed her eyes; crying until she had no tears left.
4. Although Bart didn't usually like action movies, this one was great; he could have watched it all night, eyes glued to the screen, popcorn halfway to his mouth.
5. The last thing she wanted to do; was go for a job interview.
6. Spring was almost here; the buds of blossoms were beginning to unfurl.

Now do the test by replacing the semicolons with periods.

1. I went to the store. She went to bed. (correct)
2. He hated turtle soup. Because he found it barbaric. (incorrect)
3. Lucy closed her eyes. Crying until she had no tears left. (incorrect)
4. Although Bart didn't usually like action movies, this one was great. He could have watched it all night, eyes glued to the screen, popcorn halfway to his mouth. (correct)
5. The last thing she wanted to do. Was go for a job interview. (incorrect)
6. Spring was almost here. The buds of blossoms were beginning to unfurl. (correct)

You might be wondering, then what's the point? Why not just use a period?

Valid question.

Two reasons:

1. A semicolon conveys that the content of these two sentences are related and connected in some way. Sure, you can convey that without a semicolon, but for that extra bit of visual emphasis, a semicolon can be nice to use. (Just don't over use them. That's annoying.)

"I went to the store; she went to bed" conveys that these two things are related in some way. We'd need the context of what came before, but perhaps these two characters got in an argument, and this sentence is conveying they each went their separate ways after. The two actions are related.

2. Semicolons have quicker pauses than periods. In the writing industry, we often don't talk enough about beat and rhythm in sentences. Periods have longer pauses. Semicolons are shorter. When you are focused on beat, rhythm, or even pacing, a semicolon may be just what you need.

You can break this all down and get more technical, talking about independent clauses, but remember, the headline of this article is the easiest explanation. And the easiest explanation is that each side of the semicolon needs to be able to stand as a complete sentence. A semicolon implies they relate. That's it.

. . . Okay, there actually is one other way you can use a semicolon in punctuation, but it's less exciting and less used, so if you want to stop reading this article at this point, you probably can. There are also some opinions on whether or not a semicolon should be used in fiction at all, which I'm going to address after.

Still with me?


So the other time you can use a semicolon is when you are writing out lists in a sentence and one or more of the items in the list already includes a comma.

For example:

It's my dream to go to Paris, France; Rome, Italy; Athens, Greece; and Tokyo, Japan.


During the summer, they hiked down canyons, over fields, and up mountains; fished in lakes, ponds, and even the sea; and shared secrets.


We were going to go swimming; watch the sunset, which was beautiful this time of year; and roast marshmallows.

This can help with clarity.

Should Semicolons be Axed from Fiction Completely?

Some people in the industry argue that you should never use semicolons in fiction because they draw attention to themselves and therefore pull the reader a little out of the story (as a distraction). Semicolons signal to the audience they are reading a story, not experiencing it. 

However, I argue that the only reason semicolons do this is because we as a society don't teach and use them correctly or regularly. If we did, they wouldn't attract attention. I think it's silly to completely ax a punctuation mark because other people are failing at it. Wouldn't it be better to instead educate people? Because semicolons do have a function and purpose in writing. Obviously, it's possible to overuse them, but ax them completely? Come on.

I'm already sad that the interrobang (?!) gets the red pen.


  1. Amazing article!
    Could you explain the m-dash and the colon next? I have a really hard time figuring out when to use them (for instance, in example No.6, couldn't you have used a colon instead of a semicolon?)

    1. Thanks!

      Sure, I will put those in the queue. I have a few other posts that need to go up first.

  2. As a semicolon fan, I liked the article: I thought it was informative and well argued. I hope it helps some people out there. It certainly is a specific kind of transition that has its place, as long as you don't abuse it. I find that I use it maybe once every two pages or so.

  3. I like semicolons but I have had to stop myself from using too many. I like the colon as well in its proper place. Sometimes nothing else quite fits the bill, but sadly they seem to be unfashionable, which makes me pause before using one. It's unfortunate that such precise punctuation is now an endangered species because people aren't taught how to use them. (Or wrongly taught. I was told at school that a comma goes where you want a pause. Oops!)

    1. I agree. Sometimes I wonder if a bunch of us in the writing community should band together and use them regularly, and maybe it will become "normal" again.

      Funny how we are sometimes taught wrong in school. I remember being told I needed a comma before "because," but I guess that isn't the case. I still use them that way for stylistic emphasis on occasion though.


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