While walking in Manhattan, I encountered a literal mixed signal: a traffic light showing an orange hand and a white walking figure, both illuminated. Should I stop? Go? Of course, in New York City, pedestrians cross at a (reasonably) safe opportunity, regardless of the indicated right of way. Punctuation marks are like traffic lights for written words, directing and controlling their flow. A period says, “Stop.” A comma says, “Pause.” A semicolon, the mixed signal of the punctuation world, says, “Pause slightly longer than you would for a comma, but don’t stop like you would for a period. Thank you, and have a nice day.” (I imagine the semicolon to be civilized and well-mannered.)
Author Kurt Vonnegut was not an admirer of semicolons. He said, “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” I tend to align more with Abraham Lincoln, who stated, “I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.” (See what he did there? He used a semicolon to illustrate his point.) Still, when I pondered the idea of devoting an entire post to this period-comma hybrid, I was concerned that no one would be able to relate. I mean, who uses semicolons aside from making winky faces? Over 90 percent of my Facebook friends, based on a sample of 35. If the vast majority of us are using semicolons, we should probably make sure we’re doing it right.
Here are some basic guidelines from The Chicago Manual of Style, accompanied by examples. If you are already a semicolon savant, skip ahead to the quiz that follows.
A semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would. (Recall from seventh grade that an independent clause contains a subject and a verb, and can stand on its own.)
- Example: “The sun was setting; Timmy wouldn’t make it home before dark.”
- Example: “Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets; my favorite is 30.”
- Example: “Carmen pondered becoming a chef; she would have to go to culinary school.”
Certain adverbs, when they are used to join two independent clauses, should be preceded by a semicolon rather than a comma. These transitional adverbs include however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, therefore, and sometimes then.
- Example: “Lisa couldn’t be late for the hearing; therefore, she allowed ample time to get to the courthouse.”
- Example: “I wanted the trout; however, the restaurant was out of it.” (This is a real-life example.)
- Example: “The cat seemed hungry; indeed, he devoured the can of tuna we gave him.”
When items in a series themselves contain internal punctuation, separating the items with semicolons can aid clarity. If ambiguity seems unlikely, commas may be used instead.
- Example: “In 2016, Colin Hay will perform in Clearwater, Florida; Franklin, Tennessee; and Bristol, New Hampshire.” (Check out his tour schedule. If he is playing in your area, go! Incredible show.)
- Example: “The votes received by the candidates for class president were as follows: Jessica, 457; Emilio, 398; and Logan, 272.”
- Example: “I visited the Tower of London, where I attended the Ceremony of the Keys; Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer; and the British Museum, home of the Rosetta Stone.”
Want to test your semicolon skills? Determine whether each item below is punctuated correctly. (The answers appear at the end of this post.)
- The Chicago Manual of Style is my bible; it is full of important information.
- Danny disrupted the class; accordingly, he was sent to the principal’s office.
- The fireworks were loud; but the dog didn’t seem frightened.
- The bride’s bouquet consisted of three types of flowers; namely, roses, tulips, and dahlias.
- The car’s last three oil changes took place February 3, 2015; August 21, 2014; and December 14, 2013.
Thanks for reading! 😉
Answers: 1. Correct. 2. Correct. 3. Incorrect. 4. Incorrect. 5. Correct.
I love semicolons and everything about this post except for the part where you’re ordering trout at a restaurant.
Ha! When I was little, my mother would make trout with tarragon-butter sauce, and I’ve been hooked ever since (on trout, tarragon, AND butter).