A few weeks ago, one of my friends asked me, “Hey, Kirbz, how does a semicolon sound like?” I was, at first, confused with his question. I thought he was asking how to pronounce the word semicolon, but it turns out that he was actually asking if semicolon has a specific accent or pause when used in a sentence, just like commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points. In essence, he was actually asking how to use the semicolon.
The semicolon is just one of but the few punctuations we have. The practice of using the semicolon to separate words of opposed meaning and to indicate interdependent statements was established by the Italian printer Aldus Manutius the Elder.1 The first printed semicolon was found in his work in 1494.2 The first notable English writer to use the semicolon in a systematic way was Ben Johnson. According to the British writer on grammar Lynne Truss, many non-writers avoid the use semicolon (and semicolon) for reasons like the following: “They are old fashioned,” “They are middle-class,” “They are optional,” “They are mysteriously connect to pausing,” “They are dangerously addictive (vide Virginia Woolf),” and “The difference between them is too negligible to be grasped by the brain of man.”3 Despite all these stigma against semicolon, this punctuation is actually frequently used in academic writing.
And now, to answer my friend’s question, how does a semicolon sound?
First of all, it is important to note that the semicolon is more of a visual punctuation rather than an auditory one. That means, it does not take any specific sound, accent, or pause. It is usually employed to add ease of reading.
Here are some useful rules of using the semicolon.
1. To connect two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction. The use of semicolon in this instance signals a much closer relationship between the clauses than a period would. Compare the following sentences:
I am going home; this party is boring.
I am going home because this party is boring.
This party is boring, and I am going home.
Note that using a comma instead of a semicolon in the first sentence would introduce the error called comma splice (perhaps, this will be another topic of one of my future articles).
When to use a semicolon to join two independent clauses?
A. Use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses when the two independent clauses are related to or contrast with one another. If otherwise, use a conjunction to connect them.
I like citrus fruits; lemons are my favorite.
I like citrus fruits, but the local store near our house do not sell them.
2. To connect items of a complex series. A complex series is, of course, a series with the presence of internal commas. To avoid confusion and misreading, the semicolon is used to separate the items.
The membership of the international commission was as follows: France, 4; Germany, 5; Great Britain, 1; Italy, 3; United States, 7.
I am expecting several guests for my party: Ms. Summers, my art teacher; George, the school janitor; and Mr. Monroe, my literature teacher.
3. To connect independent clauses joined by a transitional adverb or phrase. 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. A comma usually follows the adverb, but may be omitted if the sentence seems just as effective without it.
Mildred intends to go to Europe; however, she has made no plans.
They couldn’t make it to the summit and back before dark; therefore, they decided to camp for the night.
4. To connect independent clauses joined by conjunctions in special cases. Normally, an independent clause introduced by a conjunction is preceded by a comma. In formal prose, a semicolon may be used instead—either to effect a stronger, more dramatic separation between clauses or when the second independent clause has internal punctuation.
Frobisher had always assured his grandson that the house would be his; yet there was no provision for this bequest in his will.
Garrett had insisted on remixing the track; but the engineer’s demands for overtime pay, together with the band’s reluctance, persuaded him to accept the original mix.
Another instance would be like this: If both independent clauses possess introductory phrases or clauses, use a semicolon.
Like the blazing sun [introductory phrase], I will shine on stage, and you’ll be there to cheer me on.
Like the blazing sun [introductory phrase], I will shine on stage; and if you promise to be good [introductory phrase], I’ll give you a ticket to watch me perform.
These are the rules of semicolon that I am aware of. I have learned these rules from my copyeditor training when I entered my career in a publishing company. However, please note that these rules are based mainly on the guidelines set by the Chicago Manual of Style; I am not familiar with the style and guidelines of other disciplines. Should I come across some other rules regarding the use of semicolon, I will either update this article or post a new one.
For a fun way of learning the use of semicolons, click here.