Semicolon kinda life, baby, baby


What’s your stance on semicolons? Are you a confident user? Are you an overly confident user, peppering your sentences with them willy-nilly? Or have you relegated them to the grammatical too-hard basket?

Personally, I’m a big fan of semicolons. When used correctly and sparingly, they’re a beautiful thing. Here’s how to use them – and some common mistakes to avoid.

When to use semicolons

1. Between independent clauses that are closely related.

Let’s break that down. First of all, a clause is a group of words containing a subject and a verb. Independent clauses make grammatical sense on their own – they work as stand-alone sentences. Some sentences have more than one independent clause:

I know it’s not mine, but I see if I can use it for the weekend or a one-night stand.

The two independent clauses – I know it’s not mine and I see if I can use it for the weekend or a one-night stand – are connected with a comma and a conjunction, but. This is a completely acceptable way of linking independent clauses.

Now, semicolons perform the same job as the comma + conjunction. They connect independent clauses. These clauses must be closely related – basically, part of the same idea. Here are some examples of good semicolon use:

Come on, be alive again; don’t lay down and die.

I have a tendency to wear my mind on my sleeve; I have a history of taking off my shirt.

I wanna pierce my tongue. It doesn’t hurt; it feels fine.

Obviously, “closely related” is a relative concept, and it’s not always clear whether two clauses are related enough to warrant a semicolon. If you’re not sure, try replacing the semicolon with a full stop. Are you happy with dividing the clauses into two separate sentences? If so, stick to that. Does the full stop seem too decisive, too abrupt? If so, a semicolon is probably suitable.

2. To avoid confusion in complicated lists.

When you separate list items with commas and those items themselves contain commas, things can get confusing. For example, try making sense of this:

This blog references, among others, “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind, 1999’s “Every Morning”, a huge hit for Sugar Ray, “Malibu” by Hole, Courtney Love’s band, the Barenaked Ladies’ 1998 single “One Week”, “Flagpole Sitta”, a classic song by Harvey Danger, and a personal favourite, Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again?”.    

That sentence, with its 11 commas, is incredibly hard to parse. It’s not clear which words go together – for example, are we saying Hole, Courtney Love’s band or Courtney Love’s band, the Barenaked Ladies? Semicolons to the rescue. We can use them to separate the list items, like so:

This blog references, among others, “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind; 1999’s “Every Morning”, a huge hit for Sugar Ray; “Malibu” by Hole, Courtney Love’s band; the Barenaked Ladies’ 1998 single “One Week”; “Flagpole Sitta”, a classic song by Harvey Danger; and a personal favourite, Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again?”.    

Blink-182: ahh, the memories.

Blink-182: ahh, the memories.

Granted, it’s still a terribly written sentence, but at least there’s no ambiguity anymore. Oh, one more thing – even if you’re anti Oxford comma (the comma before the final “and” in a list), you need to include a semicolon in that spot. So, in the example above, we couldn’t do away with that semicolon after “Harvey Danger”.

Common semicolon mistakes

1. Using them with words that aren’t independent clauses.

Remember, the semicolon can only be used to connect clauses that work independently as stand-alone sentences. In this example, the first clause is fine, but to take me away isn’t – it makes no grammatical sense on its own:

Tomorrow comes with one desire; to take me away.

That semicolon should be changed to a colon or a dash.

2. Using them between two clauses that aren’t closely related.

Here, the two clauses are independent, but they’re not related enough to warrant a semicolon – TV shows and call ID have nothing to do with each other:

Nobody likes you when you’re 23 and are still more amused by TV shows; what the hell is call ID?

Using a full stop instead of a semicolon would make it clear that we’re moving on to a new idea. (Apologies to Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge, whose flawlessly constructed song I had to butcher to make a point.)

3. Using them with conjunctions.

When you’re using a semicolon, you can’t introduce the second clause with a conjunction – a word that explains the relationship between the two clauses, such as “and”, “but”, “or”, “though”, “after” or “because”. This, then, is wrong:

She said, “I think I remember the film; and, as I recall, I think we both kinda liked it.”

Either the semicolon should be replaced with a comma or the “and” should be deleted: I think I remember the film; as I recall, we both kinda liked it.

The one exception is conjunctive adverbs: “however”, “furthermore”, “therefore”, “nonetheless” and so on. These words mark the beginning of an independent clause, so a semicolon is appropriate:

New music is fine; however, you can’t beat music from the ’90s.

4. Replacing all commas in a list with them.

You can use semicolons in a list alongside commas, as we discussed above, but you can’t replace the commas altogether. Here, for example, there’s no reason to use semicolons:

I don’t get angry when my mom smokes pot; hits the bottle; and goes right to the rock.

It should be smokes pot, hits the bottle, and goes right to the rock (with Oxford comma) or smokes pot, hits the bottle and goes right to the rock (without Oxford comma).

In a nutshell

Semicolons have two uses. They can be used between clauses that are independent – that is, make sense as stand-alone sentences – and closely related, and they can be used to separate list items where some of those items contain commas.