I don’t know how many times I’ve had red marks scrawled across my paper because I’ve committed the unforgivable sin of using a semi-colon. Most of my critique partners sniff and say it’s just not done in popular writing–only literature. Not done? But I just did it, and correctly too I might add. Besides, I don’t think the little used dot and comma considers itself sullied by being in my paranormal romance novel or my SciFi one either.
Another critique partner once quipped that semicolons encourage long sentences. I’ve judged enough contests and have had a few verbose writer friends to know that is a bald-faced lie. There are plenty of paragraph long sentence without a semicolon but plenty of commas. Why is no one calling for those evil commas to be banished to Prose Purgatory?
Okay, maybe I’m being a little overzealous in my defense of the poor, maligned semicolon. But it is one of the few punctuation marks that I know how to use properly. Why? Because once upon a time, I submitted a paper were the difference between an A and a B rested on its tiny shoulders. I got the B and never forgot how to use the semicolon.
So how does one use a semicolon? I’m glad you asked. Here are the three ways I distinctly remember:
1.) To connect two independent clauses (complete sentences, for us non-English majors) that are closely related but not linked by a conjunction. NOTE: For those who slept through English class and didn’t have the benefit of Schoolhouse Rock growing up, conjunctions are words like and, but, or, so, etc.)
Correct: I’m going out; the house smells like death.
Incorrect: I’m going out; to escape the smell of death.
Incorrect: I’m going out; and the house smells like death.
In the correctly used sentence above the semicolon replaces the conjunction.
2.) To connect a series of three or more items when commas are already present.
I’ve lived in Phoenix, Arizona; Sydney, Australia; Baltimore, Maryland; and Brooklyn, New York.
Notice that like a comma the semicolon is attached to the word that precedes it and separated by a space from the word that follows. NOTE: Unless the word that follows a semicolon is proper noun it should begin with a lowercase letter.
3.) To connect conjunctive adverbs and transitions. These include things like nevertheless, however, therefore and on the other hand.
Example: I was born in the United States; however, I am a British subject.
The interesting thing to note is that you don’t need to use it. In most cases, a period will work just fine. Guess that’s why some insecure people consider it showing off your college education. Why not? I paid for it. Don’t you show off your car, designer clothes, and latest electronic gadget?