All You Need To Know About Semicolons

woman_grows_flowersAbout a year ago, I posted a blog describing semicolon use. I explained that a semicolon joins two independent clauses — in other words, two complete sentences.

When the semicolon is used correctly, the clause that precedes and the clause that follows it have a subject and a verb:

wrong: Carolyn is a gifted gardener; with the most beautiful flowers.
right: Carolyn is a gifted gardener; she grows the most beautiful flowers.

wrong: Use care when washing clothes in hot water; as they can shrink or fade.
right: Use care when washing clothes in hot water; garments can shrink or fade.

What follows the semicolon should be so closely related to the first part of the statement that it depends on the first part for its meaning.

In the first example, “she grows the most beautiful flowers” would be meaningless unless you knew that she referred to Carolyn.

In the second, “garments can shrink or fade” needs the caution about washing clothes in hot water for it to make sense.

I pointed out in my earlier post that spellcheck often gets it wrong, advising you to use a semicolon when it is not appropriate.

The semicolon has another role: It helps clarify separations when you have a long statement with multiple elements:

This week’s guests are Sen. John McCain of Phoenix, Arizona; Sen. Corey Booker, former mayor of Newark, New Jersey; and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Madison, Wisconsin.

Here’s an even more complex statement that counts on semicolons to separate the action:

During the short interval of a week, a house came on the market in my old neighborhood of Austin, Texas; I made an offer that the owner, who had moved overseas, accepted; and I secured financing through a mortgage broker in Cleveland, Ohio.

Could the three main statements have been broken into sentences that stood on their own? Yes. But using semicolons keeps the flow of the action more connected, emphasizing that these major events occurred in a compressed time frame.

Thanks to the reader who requested information on semicolon use. If it’s puzzling for one, it’s likely puzzling for others.

Do you have a question about word or punctuation use? This Ruthless Editor loves hearing from readers.

Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers to follow standard, accepted usage per The Associated Press Stylebook. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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