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The Seductive Semicolon ;)

Okay, that may be a bit of a misleading title – there’s nothing all that sexy about semicolons (except perhaps for those folks who are really into English grammar). The most suggestive thing you can do with this particular piece of punctuation is make a winking emoticon, which, of course, is not an appropriate course of action when you’re writing something for your professor or submitting for publication. Nonetheless, the semicolon has a number of uses which can be very handy. One of those uses is relatively common; the other two described in this article are not as well known. All of them, however, may prove helpful to you in your writing.

Use #1: Combining Sentences. The most commonly known use of the semicolon is to combine two closely related independent clauses. The above paragraph actually contains an example of this:

One of those uses is relatively common; the other two described in this article are not as well known.

The first part of the sentence (i.e., everything before the semicolon) is an independent clause, as is the second part of the sentence (i.e., everything after the semicolon). In other words, there are two complete sentences that, from a grammatical perspective, could just as well be divided by a period. The semicolon, however, links them together more closely than a period would. This function is especially useful when illustrating a contrast or a cause-and-effect relationship, as in the following examples:

The forecast predicts snow for tonight; however, the game is still scheduled to be played.

The city’s unemployment rate hit nearly 12% in March; therefore, the mayor decided to seek additional state funding.

Use #2: Dividing Complicated Items of a List. In most lists, commas are the go-to punctuation for separating the items. However, if each item is relatively complicated or contains punctuation marks, then a semicolon is a clearer way to separate the list. For instance:

Next semester I am enrolled in History 302: The Western World since 1800; History 343: Art, War, and Religion in the Middle Ages; and English 201: Rhetorical Criticism.

In the above example, a semicolon is appropriate because each item is fairly complicated and contains at least one punctuation mark. If the writer of the above sentence chose to simplify the course titles, then commas would be more appropriate:

Next semester I am enrolled in History 302, History 343, and English 201.

This function of the semicolon is also useful when listing complicated numerical items such as dates, as illustrated in the sentence below:

As a result, protesters gathered in front of the Capitol on January 2, 1962; February 11, 1963; and June 24, 1964.

The above sentence would be difficult to read if it used commas instead of semicolons, since there would be a cluster of commas and numbers all scrunched together without clear separation. (“As a result, protesters gathered in front of the Capitol on January 2, 1962, February 11, 1963, and June 24, 1964.”)

Use #3: Creating Parallel Structure. This isn’t just any kind of parallel structure. In fact, the majority of sentences with parallel structure do not require a semicolon. There is, however, one particular kind of parallel structure where the semicolon is needed. Consider the following example:

The buildings were silent; the streets, deserted.

In this case, the comma effectively stands in for the verb “were.” Another way to phrase the sentence would be to say, “The buildings were silent, and the streets were deserted.” Notice how employing the semicolon makes for a more efficient use of words. While the above example may seem purely poetic, this function can actually prove very useful when reporting data. For instance, if you conducted a study involving three groups of participants, you could report data in a sentence like this:

Group A showed 33% improvement; group B, 21%; and group C, 9%.

This construction saves a lot of space and repetition compared to the alternative: “Group A showed 33% improvement. Group B showed 21% improvement. Group C showed 9% improvement.”

To summarize, keep these three applications of the semicolon in mind:

  1. Combining Sentences
  2. Dividing Complicated Lists
  3. Creating Parallel Structure

And I suppose if you’re interested in sending flirty text messages, there’s the fourth and most ambiguous use:

4. Making a winky face ; )

But perhaps it’s best I save my emoticon advice for another post.

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