Monday, June 21, 2010

SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Semicolons

(This series explained in a previous post here; some nice official rules on semis here.)


Semicolons are stronger and heavier than commas, and as such, they create a slightly longer or more significant pause. The semicolon joins two independent clauses, usually on the same topic or thought. I frequently use them to join two independent clauses that are already joined by a conjunction, when I want the longer pause of a semi plus the aural smoothness of a conjunction; I have always thought this was technically wrong, but the rule list linked above assured me that this is acceptable so long as there is a comma in the first independent clause. (And considering the length of the sentences I write, there usually is!) These examples are apparently both correct:
Serendipitously, the squid surfed into sight at that second; startled, it squirted away.

Serendipitously, the squid surfed into sight at that second; but Sir Septimus screamed, and it squirted away.
If you are making a list in which the list items themselves contain commas, then the list items should be divided by semicolons as follows:
The squid ate five sardines; six mussels, which he found rather hard to open; seven anemones, sans clownfish; and a Boston cream pie.
Perhaps because they're used in so much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature, I often think of semicolons as a little bit formal or fussy; they're the maiden aunt of punctuation, as opposed to the boldness of a dash or the unobtrusiveness of a comma. But like many maiden aunts, they are wonderfully useful at keeping many unruly things in line, be they ideas, clauses, or commas. Indeed, because they're so good at neatly delineating multiple similar items within a sentence, I also feel like semicolons signal complexity; when used correctly, their presence in your prose says that you know how to present and manage all these items competing for the reader's attention -- that you have things under control.

Finally, Semikolon is an excellent German paper-goods company, should you be a stationery hound like I am.


  1. Then there are some semicolon rules available in poster form, courtesy of The Oatmeal:

    How To Use a Semicolon

    Poster form!!!! I love that....

  2. Thanks for posting that, Greg! A great summation of rules.

  3. The semicolon has long been my favorite punctuation mark. It's perfect when you want to link two thoughts, as you said, in the same sentence. The tyrannical hard stop of the period interrupts your flow; the conjunction and comma, on the other hand, not only add an unnecessary word but may be too weak a levee to keep your two thoughts from converging in the reader's mind.

  4. I have read so much on semicolons and the rules still seem pretty fuzzy. Thanks for the info!