How Are We Supposed to Use Semicolons?

Some punctuation marks are pretty straightforward—the period, the comma, the exclamation point (unless you’re Elaine Benes). And there are those marks that few know how to distinguish (the hyphen, en-dash, em-dash). But then there are those that are used all the time, but many people are unsure how they’re supposed to be used, like the semicolon. So, how are we supposed to use semicolons?

A Misnomer

Part of the problem with the semicolon is its name.

Semicolon means “half a colon,” which, admittedly, is not a very helpful definition. And, to be honest, it doesn’t seem like an accurate definition. After all, wouldn’t half of a colon [ : ] look like this? [ . ] Or if it’s the top half, like this? [・]

And there’s where the problem starts: that’s not the colon the semi-colon is referring to.

A poetic idea

The word colon comes from the Greek κωλον kōlon, meaning a “member” or “limb” but also used to refer to a clause or part of a verse of poetry.1 The Greek term was borrowed into Latin as colon and was used to describe a verse of poetry or a complete thought in rhetoric.

Eventually, the name became associated with a particular punctuation mark used to signify the end of a complete thought or sentence: [ : ]. When the mark was first brought into English, it was used to indicate a pause somewhere between the length of the pauses of a comma and a period. Most reading was done aloud, and the size of the pause taken mattered.

When the semicolon was introduced by the Italian printer Aldus Manutius in 1496, it was used in contexts that were not quite so final as those the colon was used for. Hence the name semicolon.

But that name does us a disservice, because in modern usage a semicolon isn’t used at all like a colon.

How to Use Semicolons

There are two main ways we are supposed to use semicolons in contemporary English writing.

A List Marker

When writing out the items in a list, it is customary to place a comma in between the items:

  1. Khalid went to the store to buy spices, lamb, chicken, rice, and olive oil.

Occasionally, the items themselves contain commas, which can lead to confusion:

  1. The tour took the band to Washington, Virginia, California, Maryland, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, Florida, New York, and Wyoming, New York.

In such a circumstance, the use of semicolons helps to clarify the elements of the list that have internal commas:

  1. The tour took the band to Washington, Virginia; California, Maryland; Wyoming, Pennsylvania; Indiana, Pennsylvania; Texas, New York; Florida, New York; and Wyoming, New York.

Linking Independent Clauses

An independent clause is a grammatical phrase that can stand on its own. Most sentences are independent clauses, and many of them contain an independent clause and a dependent clause:

  1. I saw the dog that was about to steal the last piece of cake.

In the above sentence, the independent clause is I saw the dog. This clause, however short, is still a complete sentence and can stand on its own. The clause that was about to steal the last piece of cake cannot. It is dependent on the previous clause.

When using what is called a “non-restrictive clause” (we’ll talk about this later), you use a comma to offset the dependent clause:

  1. I saw the dog, which was about to steal the last piece of cake.

However, there are those times when you want to link two independent clauses in the same sentence. The two clauses could be separate sentences, but connecting them emphasizes some connection that the two ideas have. For this task, we use the semicolon:

  1. I went home from the party unhappy; the dog had eaten my cake.
  2. Bakers are doing well in this neighborhood; a lot of mischevious dogs live here.

Each dependent clause could stand on its own, but the semicolon brings them together as one complex expression.

The Super Comma

In elementary school, I once saw a movie intended to explain punctuation to us. In one scene, a man said he’d invented a new punctuation mark similar to a comma but much stronger. “What are you going to call it?” his friend asked. “The super comma?” “No!” the inventor replied. “The semicolon!”

Semicolon made of florid patterns for how to use semicolons

Ever since, it has been helpful to me to think of the semicolon as a super comma. When we look at it that way, we see it becomes far easier to remember and understand how semicolons are supposed to be used.

Whether it’s helping to separate other items that have their own commas or helping to separate two clauses not quite distinct enough for a period but too independent for a comma, the semicolon really does act as a super comma. It brings separation and maintains connection at the same time—doing a super job, no matter how poorly named it might be.