Author Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
I don’t have many pet peeves as a writer, no particular style guides that I follow unless specifically determined by a client or project, however…if there is one littlepesky issue that has always nagged me both as a writer and reader, it’s the seemingly baffling appearance of semicolons.
I have to admit that when it comes to the debate over the usefulness of semicolons, I mostly side with Mr. Vonnegut. Even though I understand their fundamental purpose, I’ve never found that I preferred to use a semicolon in place of an alternate form of punctuation: say, this thing called a period, or even an em-dash or a comma. Rhythmically, semicolons force a flowing line of text to stop abruptly and create an awkward pause that is slightly annoying and disruptive, like sentence roadblocks that delay thoughts from fully materializing.
What’s the point of a semicolon, anyway? The most common way of using a semicolon is to connect two independent clauses. For example:
The center fielder dove after the fly ball; his hat flew off as he skidded across the grass.
It’s not grammatically wrong to rewrite the above using a period rather than a semicolon, but given that the two ideas are directly related, a semicolon throws in a less noticeable pause between the two statements. If you have two independent clauses that could stand alone as their own sentences, it’s okay to separate them using a semicolon. One important rule to remember is to avoid using semicolons with conjunctions—words like “and”, “but”, “or”, “yet”, “for”, and “so.” However, semicolons and commas are paired together in sentences with conjunctive adverbs, words like “also”, “certainly”, “finally”, “furthermore”, “meanwhile”, “moreover”, “otherwise”, “therefore.” Conjunctive adverbs are often placed after a semicolon and followed by a comma. The main function of conjunctive adverbs is to connect one clause to another, or show sequence, cause and effect, action and result, and contrast.
Some examples of sentences with conjunctive adverbs include:
The seventh period bell rang; finally, the long Friday was over.
The check was for more than the balance; therefore, it bounced.
Ultimately, semicolons are best used to create a bond or link between two independent clauses; the statements can often be related or provide a contrast to one another. Here is a more detailed guide to the various pauses in punctuation:
- Comma—creates a brief pause.
- Semicolon—creates a moderate pause.
- Period—creates a full stop.
The Information Age of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging have contributed to a decline in semicolon use. The era of social media that has changed the way that people communicate, emphasizing brevity, summarization, declarative statements, jokes, zingers, playlists, and the like as readers seek information in quick, easy-to-digest segments, rendering semicolons virtually ignored.
But don’t let my bias on this matter con you into thinking that semicolons are always unacceptable. This is just one writer’s opinion, and doesn’t necessarily mean that I feel semicolons should be totally banished from the language. I simply choose to avoid them, opting for a less scattered and diverse range of punctuation in my writing—periods and the occasional dash work fine. When used properly, the semicolon can connect two independent (but related) thoughts without bringing a thought to a full stop in the same manner that using a period would. Another way of looking at a semicolon is chiefly as a form of variation within your sentence style. Using repetitive compound sentences or lists can be boring and exhausting, and throwing in the occasional semicolon for the sake of variety can help change up the pace and aesthetic of your text, especially in large, chunky paragraphs. The key word is “occasional.” One of the best tidbits of advice I’ve ever received about semicolons is to use them sparingly; save them for a special occasion, like a bottle of champagne.