Pain-free treatment for your semicolon
How much does it really matter if you misuse something as tiny as a semicolon?
The answer: a lot. It matters a lot. In fact, as discussed in the last article, thinker and storyteller Malcolm Gladwell points out that the misuse of the semicolon could overthrow the American Government.
So, how should a semicolon be used?
What is a semicolon?
If we listen to its name, we probably think of a ‘semicolon’ as ‘part of a colon’ or ‘attached to a colon’. But it’s probably better to think of this pesky piece of punctuation visually – as the combination of the comma (at the bottom) and a full stop (at the top).
Why? Because a semicolon provides more of a pause than a comma, but not as much as a full-stop.
Using a semicolon
So, what’s the correct usage?
There are two main uses of a semicolon in plain English writing.
- Semicolons are used in a list of items in a sentence that already contains items separated by commas.
- A semicolon can be used to join two complete, grammatically correct sentences together.
1. Using a semicolon in a list
Consider the following sentence.
The flag was red, white and blue.
Most of us understand that it would be incorrect to write it like this:
The flag was red; white and blue.
However, people often mistakingly use a semicolon in the same way in lists of longer items, such as:
She listed in her resume stints in the communications and government relations teams at BHP; corporate affairs at SANTOS; and public relations at Telstra.
This is incorrect. The three ‘items’ here shouldn’t be treated any differently than ‘red, white and blue’ above.
She listed in her resume her time in communications and government relations at BHP, corporate affairs at SANTOS and public relations at Telstra.
You may wish to use an Oxford comma (or ‘serial comma’) after SANTOS, but it isn’t necessary for clarity. And there’s certainly no reason to use a semicolon.
But if each of those stints included more than one reference, a semicolon should be introduced, to help the reader make sense of the sentence.
She listed in her resume her time in communications, public affairs and government relations at BHP; corporate affairs and marketing at SANTOS; and public relations at Telstra.
2. Using a semicolon to link thoughts in a sentence
A semicolon can be used to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when:
- two complete, grammatically correct sentences are too closely related to require a full stop
- there is no connecting word between the two parts of the sentence (such as ‘and’ or ‘but’) that would require a comma
- it’s not correct to use a colon.
In these cases, a semicolon can be used to link two statements that are related to each other – either reinforcing each other or contrasting with each other.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
I’ll look forward to your response, meanwhile if you have any questions, please contact me at any time at the number below.
I’ll look forward to your response. Meanwhile, if you have any questions, please contact me at any time at the number below.
I’ll look forward to your response; meanwhile, if you have any questions, please contact me at any time at the number below.
Think about how you’re using the semicolon and other punctuation in your business writing. It may not seem important, but incorrect grammar and punctation can not only affect the clarity of your message, but also your professionalism and credibility.
When a pain-free treatment is so readily available, do you want to leave the successful diagnosis of your meaning to chance?