Semicolon: Queen of Punctuation Marks

Hail to thee, [;].

In yoga, the shoulderstand is often referred to as “the queen of poses,” because of the range and extent of the healthy effects attributed to it.

If punctuation has a queen, it’s the semicolon.

While the period and comma are used more frequently, they are as mere minions to the semicolon; they lack the regal bearing and restrained power displayed by their queen. Even visually, there’s something special about the semicolon: not a mere period, not a mere comma, distinct from the simple colon; it seems more like a typographical spring, coiled and ready to unleash something special.

Garner aptly describes the semicolon as “a kind of ‘supercomma'”; The Oatmeal refers to the semicolon as “The most feared punctuation on earth.” Both correctly credit it with superiority in certain situations.

Most usage guides are more restrained in their praise, but they give the semicolon priority of place in several situations. All the sources I’m familiar with note at least two correct uses; at least one (wrongheadedly) declares that there are only two correct uses. In fact, there are at least four. While there is one clear “most common use,” and a second use that most of us will encounter on an almost-daily basis, the two less frequent uses are still worth noting.

Primary Use: The semicolon connects independent clauses when a coordinating conjunction is not used. For example:

  • The hike lasted longer than expected; we still made it home for dinner.

In this example, the independent clauses can each stand on their own. Or instead, they could be connected by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet).  If, however, that coordinated relationship is clear (such as the implied but or yet in the example), the coordinating conjunction can be replaced with a semicolon.

But an implied coordinating conjunction is not a necessary condition; it’s equally allowable to use a semicolon to link two related independent clauses that wouldn’t normally use a coordinating conjunction:

  • Polo isn’t my favorite sport; it’s not even close.

Often, there’s a real or implied contradiction between the two independent clauses:

  • Victory has many fathers; defeat is an orphan.

Also, if there’s a transitional phrase between the clauses, it should be set off with both a semicolon and a comma, in this way:

  • There’s no such thing as a free lunch; however, breakfast is only 99 cents on Friday.

Secondary Use: The semicolon is used in lists when elements within the list already use commas. Next to the primary use, this is where the queen really shows her power; by simply appearing, she dispels confusion.

  • The train made stops in New York, New York; New Brunswick, New Jersey; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Consider how that sentence would read without the semicolons.  Confusion isn’t guaranteed, but it’s probable. Here’s another:

  • His bequest included provisions for Jane, his agent; Pamela, his long-suffering mistress; Carl, the brother he hadn’t seen in decades; and Igor, his faithful manservant.

Without the semicolons in this case, the reader can’t be sure that, for example, “Jane” and “his agent” are the same person. Instead of dealing with four persons, the sentence could be read to include up to eight (not counting the deceased).

Acceptable Stylistic Use: The semicolon can be used “to give a weightier pause than a comma would” (Garner). This is never required; it’s one of those options a good writer needs to know is in the toolbox:

  • He loved Jimmy like the son he never had; despite the fact that Jimmy had totaled the car, backed through the garage door, and twice nearly set the house on fire.

That’s a good place for a comma. But in this case, a semicolon alerts the reader to linger slightly longer on the words used and the point being made. It’s almost a drum roll, setting up what follows.

Archaic Use: Don’t be taken aback if in historical (19th century) prose you run into semicolons separating clauses in long, complex sentences:

  • The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States (US Constitution, art. 2, sec. 1).

Spelling and capitalization as in the original, of course. My example is slightly older and tilts toward legalese, but they’re common. Garner lists longer examples from both Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House; it took me less than 10 seconds to find an example in Shelley’s Frankenstein. You’ll have no trouble finding others in virtually any work from that period.

A final note: You might feel I overdid it with the semicolons in this post; perhaps I did. My indulgence aside, maybe some of the uses above will encourage you to use it more frequently. Give yourself permission to unleash the semicolon; be sure to use it not for evil, but only for good.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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