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How to Use Semicolons in Your Writing

Bijgewerkt op: 11 apr.

Using semicolons in your writing isn’t as tricky as you might think. If you want to use them in your novel, then read on for the correct ways to use this punctuation mark.



How to use semicolons in your writing

 

What is a semicolon?

A semicolon is the punctuation mark that has a dot hovering over a comma, like this ;

 

This punctuation mark was introduced by an Italian printer around 1566 (source: Merriam-Webster). However, before print, the semicolon existed in ancient Greek as a question mark. This makes it even older than the colon.

 

While the semicolon’s job can be done by other punctuation marks, such as the comma or the period, using a semicolon gives your text a different feel.

 

This has mainly to do with the feeling of the “pause.” A semicolon is softer than a period but harder than a comma. See, for instance, the difference between the following sentences:

 

  • She waved her hands. Magic streamed from her fingertips.

  • She waved her hands, magic streamed from her fingertips.

  • She waved her hands; magic streamed from her fingertips.

 

How do you use a semicolon?

As you can see in the example sentence above, a semicolon is used mainly to connect to related independent clauses. You can also use it within a serial list to make it clearer.

 

Connecting related independent clauses

If you don’t quite remember what an independent clause is, I’ll give a short recap: an independent clause is a full sentence, comprising a subject and verb, expressing a complete thought. For instance, “I ran” is an independent clause, even though it’s short.

 

When you want to connect two independent clauses, the sentences should be related to each other. Meaning, the information within the two sentences shares a logical connection.

 

In the example “She waved her hands; magic streamed from her fingertips,” the character waving her hands shares a logical connection with the magic that comes from her fingertips.

 

You can also use the semicolon to replace a comma when two clauses are joined by a coordinating junction (e.g., and, or, but). So, instead of saying:

 

He grabbed his jacket, and he left his childhood home for the last time.

 

You would say:

 

He grabbed his jacket; he left his childhood home for the last time.

 

Substituting the comma and “and” with a semicolon can be particularly useful when you’re writing long sentences. If you use too many commas, the sentence can become cluttered. A semicolon then gives a nice break and makes it clearer.

 

Connecting independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb

Within formal writing, such as academic writing, you’ll likely use a lot of conjunctive adverbs (e.g., however, also, indeed, moreover). When you use these adverbs to link to independent clauses, you should precede the adverb with a semicolon. For instance:

 

The results showed that continued exposure led to a decrease in fear; however, instant exposure without a gradual build led to an increase in fear.

 

Clarity within a serial list

If you have a list that contains long items or internal punctuation, using a semicolon creates a clearer division between items. For instance:

 

It’s my dream to travel to the following places: Bangkok, Thailand; Paris, France; Sydney, Australia; and Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

 

I wanted us to go to a nice dinner; have a romantic walk on the beach, which would look amazing in the glow of the setting sun; and go to a bar to have some cocktails.

 
 

Can you use a semicolon in dialogue?

Whether you use a semicolon in dialogue is a personal choice. If you use it correctly, there’s nothing wrong with putting it in dialogue. However, there are authors who feel it doesn’t fit within dialogue, as you can’t hear the punctuation.

 

I would disagree, though, as a semicolon—like the comma and period—would indicate a certain rhythm. So, if you feel the semicolon has the right rhythm for your dialogue, why not use it?

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