Judy Nollet
White Plume Communications

writer, instructional designer, eLearning developer

Watch Out for That Semi

The semicolon is often useful; it is also often misused. The semicolon's appearance provides a hint for its two applications. It looks like a period placed above a comma; it may replace either of those punctuation marks at different times.

Using a Semicolon Instead of a Period

The period provides a full stop between sentences. Yet two sentences may be so closely related that you want to emphasize their connection. Of course, you could link them into one sentence with a comma and conjunction (and, but, or, etc.). But another option is to replace the period with a semicolon, as demonstrated throughout this article.

Here's how to avoid the most common mistakes made when replacing a period with a semicolon:

  • Do not put a conjunction after the semicolon; the semicolon is the connector.
  • Be sure both sides of the semicolon could stand alone as complete sentences; do not use a semicolon to separate dependent clauses or other short phrases.

There is one more thing to keep in mind. Using semicolons to replace periods increases the reading level of the text. While that may make you appear smarter, it also makes the text more difficult to parse for those who read at lower grade levels.

Using a Semicolon Instead of a Comma

It is easy to use commas to separate items in a list when those items are short and simple (for example, "red, white, and blue"). But if any item contains a conjunction and/or a comma, it's better to separate the items with semicolons, as in this example:

My favorite reference books include Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Conner, which offers a humorous look at basic grammar; The Bias-Free Word Finder by Rosalie Maggio, which provides alternatives, explanations, and definitions for thousands of biased words and phrases; and Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, which has excellent tips for technical writing, including useful standards for writing software instructions.

What's the most common mistake when using semicolons in a list? It's using a semicolon to introduce the items (for example, "as follows;"). That job is reserved for the colon.

While replacing periods with semicolons can make text more difficult to read, appropriately replacing commas with semicolons makes the text easier to parse. That's because the semicolons clearly divide the items in a series.

To Semi Or Not to Semi

To keep text simple, I rarely use semicolons to replace periods. (This article is the exception; it contains more semicolons than I typically use all year.)

I do find semicolons handy for separating complex items in a series. However, when space allows, I prefer to delineate such items in bulleted lists, because that increases "scan-ability."

In sum, choosing to use semicolons depends on writing style; how to use them depends on grammar.

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