The Semicolon Fallacy

Published on 07 Dec, 2016

Generic Grammar

A few days ago, I was speaking with my best friend who was planning to get a new tattoo.

“What is it going to be this time?” I asked.

“A semicolon,” she replied.

I paused for a moment, wondering if I had heard her right.

“A semicolon?” I asked again.

She went on to brag about how it is a “small character with a big purpose”. “That’s nice,” the grammar nerd in me lied. “But do you know the actual role of a semicolon?”

She stared at me for a second, her eyes wide like I had asked her the theory of evolution.

“No. Who cares?” she replied and laughed.

I cringed.

That is the problem with a semicolon, the most significant but least understood form of punctuation. It has a period and a comma – I call it a ‘hybrid’ – and comes to the rescue of writers and editors when they wish to pause to show two complete statements, but don’t want to separate them with a period.

Before going on to the examples though, let us look more closely at what a semicolon does.

Like commas, semicolons indicate a pause and are used to connect two independent clauses. Although the clauses are closely related, the second one does not follow from the first.

For instance:

  • Federal debt simply isn’t a pressing issue; there is no possible reason to make a big deal about it while neglecting climate change, where every year that action is delayed makes the problem harder to solve.
    (‘Fiscal Foolishness’ by Paul Krugman, The New York Times)

In more complex lists that already have commas, a semicolon can be used to separate the items clearly and avoid confusion.

For instance:

  • The agreement covers sales and support services in El Paso, Texas; Columbus, New Mexico; Deming, New Mexico; and Douglas, Arizona.

There are a few common rules one can keep in mind while using semicolons. Avoid it in cases where a dependent clause comes before an independent one. A comma would be the better choice.

For instance:

  • Although the rains were heavy, they were erratic.

Lastly, do not capitalize the word that follows the semicolon, unless it is a proper noun. 

Feel free to use it before words such as therefore, however, for example, and nonetheless, only if these words introduce a complete statement.