Friday 18 December 2015

The Semi-Colon - 3 Rules

The words written in purple saying The Purple Pen about editing writing

There is much talk about semi-colons in the writing world. You will find memes on Facebook by, apparently, well-known authors telling you not to ever use them. Some people believe they are no longer in ‘fashion’ and are a big no-no in the writing world.

This is simply not true.

But they are a punctuation mark that can be easily abused if not understood correctly, and like most punctuation marks they should be used with thought and care. Only when no other mark – full stop or comma – will do, should they be considered.

As someone once said to me, they should only be used when you know what you’re doing. And my advice if you are unsure is: ‘if in doubt, leave it out - use a full stop instead’.

Semi-colons are never a ‘have-to’, they are an option. On occasion they ease the flow of the writing. 

To put it technically: 'their use is to separate main clauses that have different subjects and no are not linked by a conjunction.'  This means that they are two complete sentences with slightly different subjects (or view points) and not linked by another small word such as: 'and', 'but', 'or', 'for', 'so', 'nor'.  

Let's take a look at some examples: 

All around them, the courtyard bustled; the pop and fizz of soda bottles opening, the scent of pizza, and the sound of girlish giggles announced the first lunch of the year. 

The second sentence relates directly to the first sentence. You could use a full-stop, but with a semi-colon the eye leads on to the second part of the sentence creating a whole picture. I call this a ‘Semi-colon Moment’.

But the second sentence must refer to, or follow on from, the first sentence and be able to stand alone.

More examples: 

The strain started to take a toll on Ashley; her conscience itched.

He’d smiled just for her; the kind of smile she’d seen him give other girls and envied. 

Both sentences can stand alone, but they are enhanced by the semi-colon.

There are two other ways the semi-colon is used, and this time between sentence fragments. This occurs when a comma is not ‘strong’ enough to separate the items.

They can be used in a series of phrases or a list of names.

For example: 

He had called them all in, he needed them all; John Preston, the Union representative; Mark Withers, the Factory Manager; David Lindy, the CFO and his second in command; and Janice Price, the only shareholder that mattered. 

They can be used in a long sentence, which already contains several commas.

For example: 

Alice was on her way home when they caught up to her, and she was pleased they had; she didn’t like walking home alone, and it meant they could enjoy their time together. 

In the above example you could break many of these sentences into short, sharp ones, which is the current fashion, but it would also break the flow.

So let’s recap. 

The 3 main rules are:

1) Use a semi-colon to connect two complete sentences which directly relate to each other;

2) Use a semi-colon to set off a series of phrases which directly relate to each other;

3) Use a semi-colon to break a long sentence which already contains commas.

(And note how in the list above a semi-colon is used. This happens often, but people don’t really ‘see’ it. )

You maybe also ask, why use a semi-colon when you can use a colon? 

How the Semi-Colon differs from the Colon 

A colon states that a list is about to happen, whether a single items, or full sentences. For example: 

There are three levels: low, intermediate, and high. 

And when quoting something someone has said: 

When John spoke to Phillip he told him: “I won’t be made a fool of!” 

They can also be used when an explanation is about to follow - as show above before each example. 

I hope that makes sense, and that you might feel more confident using them.

And if you know of any more ways they can be used, feel free to let me know in the comments. 

Find more editing tip posts HERE.


  1. Ah, the semi-colon, which I avoid, but may use if I can get my head around it!

    1. They can be tricky, I have to watch for overuse of them. I hope this blog helps.

  2. I think because of what I grew up reading (Victorian & Edwardian children's lit discarded from libraries, among other things), if I'm not careful, my writing ends up filled to the brim with semicolons. Properly used semicolons, but still. Long sentences, we loves them.

    Your second example is basically one of the ones I'm fond of: use semicolons to separate items in a list, particularly a list following a colon, if commas will not do. If, for example, some of the items are themselves phrases containing commas. But while I thought that was what you were saying, your example isn't exactly that circumstance.

    I do sometimes like what I think of as an archaic semicolon usage... let me think up an example...

    There was really nowhere to go now, she thought, not without great risk; and really, what other option did she have?

    How kind, how good, how charitable; and ultimately, how foolish.

    These days, that would probably be a full stop or comma, depending on the sentence. A hundred-plus years ago it was definitely a semicolon sort of moment.

    1. I was also raised with books with long sentences - Rupert Annuals! Recent ones have very short sentences in comparison. JR Tolkien, and Wind in the Willows also tend to have very long sentences.

      Your first example I would say are two complete sentences and the semi-colon works perfectly to join them and keep the flow. But for your second example I would probably use a dash, but I still would not consider it 'wrong'. This is what makes the semi-colon so tricky, because it is a feeling, rather than a hard and fast rule in many cases.

      I am not sure which example you are refering to, the list of people attending the meeting or the long sentence with more than one comma? If you feel it was not expressing what I was trying to explain then please let me know. I sometimes struggle with finding examples of what I am trying to explain. Punctuation for me can be intuitive, which is often why I double check and check again to make sure it is correct, especially when working with other people's writing.