I love semi-colons. I take every opportunity to use them and hope that, by example, I encourage other people to use them (I hope this isn’t merely wishful thinking). To be honest, I have never understood why some people are afraid of using semi-colons; probably it’s more a fear of misusing them.
The semi-colon is an underused, yet powerful, punctuation mark. Just as our tone or hand gestures, for instance, can help us to be understood clearly when we speak, so punctuation helps us to communicate more clearly when we write. In the words of Lynne Truss, who wrote the bestselling guide to punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, “all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places… If [punctuation] goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable”. So, even though the semi-colon is not as commonly used as commas or full stops, it does have a very important role to play in helping us communicate our message as accurately as possible.
While I often hear people (myself included) complaining about the misuse of apostrophes, and overuse of commas and exclamation marks, the semi-colon doesn’t usually get a lot of attention. Although, oddly enough, the writer Kurt Vonnegut warned people against using them because “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” On the opposite side, George Bernard Shaw advised fellow writer T.E. Lawrence, after reading his autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.” People are always going to disagree when discussing language and its nuances. Why not just take from this argument the fact that semi-colons should be used with care and consideration.
If you are feeling encouraged to use semi-colons, but are not completely sure how to, let’s refer to Swan’s Practical English Usage. Very simply, Swan explains the semi-colon has two uses.
1) Instead of full stops, to join two grammatically independent phrases which have a closely connected meaning.
Some people work best in the mornings; others do better in the evenings.
It is a fine idea; let us hope that it is going to work.
If, however, either of the phrases are complex, it is better to use a full stop instead of a semi-colon:
It is a fine idea to cut back on advertising to save money this quarter. Let us hope that it is going to work, otherwise some jobs may have to be cut.
2) In lists, when the items are complex or contain commas.
You may use the sports facilities on condition that your subscription is paid regularly; that you arrange for all necessary cleaning to be carried out; that you undertake to make good any damage; that you inform staff of any facilities that need fixing, cleaning or updating; …
To test your prowess with semi-colons, try these exercises.