Novelty Punctuation and the Technical Writer, Part 2: The Semicolon

I 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 we know now, a colon means “here is what you’re looking for in this sentence, voila!”).

Semicolons have a reputation as “advanced punctuation,” but start looking out for them in your reading for other classes. I bet you’ll find them in texts you wouldn’t expect. 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 all the time in speech but can’t quite convey in language.

YOU use it all the time in speech. Listen for the semi-colon as you talk: 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. Look:

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 husband told me he’d divorce me 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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