The art of the semicolon

Before my love affair with the em dash, there was my ‘masterful use of the semicolon’, to quote my first content marketing line manager. A favourite of poets and academics alike, this humble bit of punctuation can be a powerful tool in your writing; if you use it well, that is.

What is a semicolon?

A semicolon looks like a full stop floating on top of a comma (;). In speech, it sounds like a pause that’s shorter than a full stop but a hair longer than a comma. You can use this in the same place you’d use an em dash, hyphen, comma, or parentheses to yoke together two complete thoughts containing connected ideas. It also saves you from unwittingly splicing your commas, a mortal sin in the eyes of some.

A (very) brief history of the semicolon

So, where did this colon-comma hybrid come from? The semicolon as we know it was invented by printer and publisher Aldus Manutius in 1494 in Venice, Italy. And the semicolon lived largely unfettered by a strict, defined function for ages, acting like a musical notation that called for a pause somewhere between a colon and a comma.

The semicolon as we know it was invented by printer and publisher Aldus Manutius in 1494 in Venice, Italy.

Fast-forward a few centuries, and you’ve got the systematised semicolon of today, with two primary uses: separating items in a list, and connecting two independent clauses that could work as sentences in their own right. More about that in a bit.

How to use a semicolon

There are a few ways the semicolon makes itself useful. Let’s take a closer look and see it all in action with some examples.

To connect two independent clauses

Firs things first. An independent clause is just a sentence that can stand on its own two feet. It makes sense and feels complete. When two independent clauses meet and express related ideas, you might want to bring them together.

We often connect independent clauses using conjunctions (and, but, or), but you can get fancy with it (and save sometimes-crucial characters) by replacing that conjunction with a semicolon.

Example: I ordered a Chianti; my first sip reminded me of our time in Tuscany.

To separate items in a list

Lengthy lists can come off a little clumsy, especially if there’s some internal punctuation knocking about. In swoops the semicolon to save the day and keep your in-line lists tidy. A word on capitalisation before you move on: in this kind of list, unless the first word in the second clause is a proper noun, you can carry on in lowercase.

Example: Our tour through Italy was incredible. We travelled to Bari; Naples; Rome; Florence; Lucca; Bologna; Verona; and Milan.

With a transitional phrase or conjunctive adverb

Conjunctive adverbs is a clever term for those words we use to sound clever in our assignments and emails. Words like moreover, therefore, however, nevertheless, and finally. Also in that category, you’ll find transitional phrases: such as, in fact, as a result.

Semicolons can come before transitional phrases and conjunctive adverbs when they’re combining two independent clauses.

Example: The files we needed weren’t received in time; as a result, we’ve had to push publication back by at least two days.

What’s the difference between a colon and a semicolon?

1. Colons allow you to introduce new information, whether that’s a quote, list, or example. They give the reader a visual cue to know that something is coming. Semicolons show a reader that two ideas are connected.

2. Semicolons connects two sentences, while colons can only really connect two dependent clauses (i.e. incomplete sentences).

3. Colons can be used to set off a subtitle (e.g. Potato: The Little Spud that Could).

4. Colons introduce a list, semicolons help organise complex lists.

That’s a wrap for today! If you enjoyed this blog or found it useful, why not give it a share on your favourite social media platform? Until then, keep writing.

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