Punctuation and the Technical Writer, Part 2: The Semicolon

I sometimes think of the semi-colon as a “soft period.” You use it when a period would work grammatically, but it would draw too much of a barrier of meaning between the two clauses you’re working with, and a colon would draw too SPECIFIC of a connection (because, as the colon post explained, a colon means “here is what you’re looking for in this sentence, voila!”).


the dreaded semi-colon

get a reputation as “advanced punctuation,” but start looking out for them in your reading for other classes or in “the wild.” You might find them in surprising contexts. The semicolon offers an implication of connection between two statements that might otherwise stand on separate sides of a period–and that can be extremely useful for a reader, because it conveys a sense of connection that we use frequently in speech but that can be quite difficult to convey in language.


Listen for the semi-colon as you speak: a connector between two statements that is not as strong as a period, not as specific as a colon.

Because of that implication of connection, semicolons are a great way to reduce wordiness: you don’t usually NEED connecting words like “however,” “therefore,” or “moreover” on the other side of a semicolon. That link is implied through your use of the semicolon.

Here are some examples of that.

A lot of you think semicolons are confusing; this post should clear them up.

I had a job interview; I told Lucy I wouldn’t be in class.

My landlord told me she’d end my lease if I rooted for the LA Dodgers; I root for the San Francisco Giants.

Notice that on the clause each side of the semicolon could stand on its own as a full sentence. But there’s a stronger connection between these two (grammatically independent, i.e., standalone sentence-like) clauses than ending each with a period would suggest. So: semicolon!

Extra challenge: Reread this post. I’ve included some periods that might work better as semicolons. Can you find them? What pairs of sentences might work better connected by a semicolon, rather than distanced from each other by a vast period?



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