Love ’em or hate ’em, semi-colons sure are useful. If you know how to use them. Here’s a helpful tutorial.
Example: He was upset. I knew that right away.
These two sentences are great as is, but what if we want to strengthen the connection between them?
He was upset–I knew that right away.
Better. But what if they need something just a little more than a dash?
He was upset; I knew that right away.
It’s a matter of taste. If you like the dash or even the hard stop of the period better, use that. If you like the semi-colon, then that is how to use it.
The real point behind this post is how not to use a semi-colon.
- Do not put semi-colons any old place. They belong between two sentences; that is all.
- Do not overuse them. Semi-colons in college papers can be two to a page. In novels (and everywhere else), less is more.
- Do not think they are interchangeable with commas. Commas can do lots of jobs; semi-colons cannot. See rule one.
I repeat: semi-colons belong between two sentences.
This works: I frown; he noticed. This does not work: I frown; upset. That is a comma’s job: I frown, upset.
There’s only one job semi-colons can perform better than a comma, but the circumstances have to be just right.
I went to the store for milk, bread, and eggs, to the pharmacy for vitamins, band-aids, and a hairbrush, and to the restaurant for a gift card.
Too many commas for you? Stumble over that sentence? Semi-colon it.
I went to the store for milk, bread, and eggs; to the pharmacy for vitamins, band-aids, and a hairbrush; and to the restaurant for a gift card.
Plenty of people don’t care for semi-colons because they don’t understand how to use them with confidence. Now that you know how to use a semi-colon, try ’em, see if you like them. Don’t go overboard, but don’t be scared to try something new, either.
Still confused about semi-colons? Ask me in a comment below! Interested in having an editor look over your project? See how I can help here.