Last month, I blogged about the proper use of quotation marks. Several people contacted me asking for a similar post regarding the use of semicolons. Well, here we go!
The semicolon (;)
As always, I'm addressing punctuation used in non-technical, non-academic writing for publication in the United States. As I mentioned in my post on the quotation mark, there are some differences in conventions from one country to the next.
As opposed to the comma, the semicolon is a fairly easy to get right because it has clear rules.
I'm only going to discuss the three most common uses of the semicolon. For a more detailed description, I recommend Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style.
1. Semicolons are used to link two complete sentences (independent clauses) that are closely related. A period can be used, but the semicolon strengthens the meaning.
Correct: Suzette finished her manuscript today; she had been working on it for a year.
Correct: Suzette finished her manuscript today. She had been working on it for a year.
Incorrect: Suzette finished her manuscript today, she had been working on it for a year.
(The third example is a comma splice since the clauses are independent. A big no-no.)
2. Semicolons are used to link two complete sentences with a conjunctive adverb (some common conjunctive adverbs are therefore, however, anyway, consequently).
Correct: Carolyn and Heather received revision suggestions from agents; consequently, they are writing like mad.
Incorrect: Carolyn and Heather received revision suggestions from agents, consequently, they are writing like mad.
The link for conjunctive adverbs in rule 2 above goes into greater detail and gives more examples of correct and incorrect usage.
What causes problems is that a semicolon is not used when the independent clauses are joined by a conjunction (but, and, or, so nor etc). A comma is used.
Correct: Elana returned to her classroom to retrieve her purse, but her room was locked.
Incorrect: Elana returned to her classroom to retrieve her purse; but her room was locked.
3. Semicolons are used in a series that would usually be separated by commas, but one or more of the items in the series has a comma in it.
Correct: Some of my favorite books are Dune, by Frank Herbert; The Summer Guest, by Justin Cronin; and The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.
There are other uses for the semicolon, but they occur infrequently and are most often optional. I recommend the books I referenced at the top of this post if you want to read about the minor uses of semicolons.
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Mary Lindsey writes paranormal fiction for children and adults. Prior to attending University of Houston Law School, she received a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Drama.
Mary can also be found on her website.