The semicolon awaits trial in global court. The indictment? Uselessness. If convicted, it will be exiled from the Land of the Written Word.
This grieves my heart.
Worldwide, writers and editors have denounced the semicolon. In its place they have sanctioned unthinkable replacements: Phrases and clauses masquerading as sentences.
Groups of words divorced from both subject and verb. The horror, the horror. And what about the twenty-first century writer’s infatuation with the single-word pseudo-sentence? Inexplicable.
I, on the other hand, come to praise the semicolon, not to condemn it.
No other punctuation mark has the semicolon’s ability to connect independent clauses without compromising their individuality, to highlight the value of conjunctive adverbs, or to unsnarl a tangle of phrases and commas, then align them in readable lists.
What makes the semicolon a remarkable invention, however, is the nuances of meaning its presence heralds. The semicolon suggests a kinship between two independent clauses that distinguishes them from the crowd of sentences congregated in a paragraph. Without the semicolon’s assistance, the meaning of both thoughts would be diminished; therefore, it enables writers who appreciate its subtlety to craft more memorable sentences.
Example: Joy is not about praying for the sunshine; it’s about playing in the rain.
Semicolons also provide an air of expectancy at the end of an independent clause. They conduct a fluidity of thought that is blocked by a period and too forceful to be controlled by a comma. When savvy readers encounter a semicolon, they pause to examine the relationship between two thoughts. In this role, a semicolon acts as a grammatical selah.
Example: I waited in silence as he read; I knew better than to leave before I had been dismissed.
I close with three advisements:
- Don’t disrespect a semicolon by assuming it’s a pretentious comma or a period’s poor relation.
- Don’t use one between two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so). That’s the comma’s job.
- Don’t use one in dialogue. That’s the period’s job.
Save the semicolon, fellow writers. It deserves both our protection and our patronage.
Lewis Thomas: “Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines further on, and it is like climbing a steep path through the woods and seeing a bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.”
Don’t disrespect a semicolon by assuming it’s a pretentious comma or a period’s poor relation. (Click to Tweet.)
Denise Loock is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is the editor for The Journey Christian Newspaper, which reaches over 60,000 online and print readers. As an assistant editor, she helps Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas produce high quality, engaging inspirational books. She accepts freelance editing projects too. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.