Updated on September 29, 2016
Pause for thought: how to use semicolons
This overlooked punctuation mark is an incredibly useful writing tool. Today we look at using semicolons to bring greater clarity to your copy
Photograph by Paula Borowska
As someone whose writing can get somewhat… unwieldy, I’m a big fan of the semicolon. When I’m midway through a sentence and realise I have a lot of things to say I will usually try to divide the sentence in two. But it doesn’t always work, because sometimes a line of thought needs to come out in its entirety before that decisive full stop brings it to a final halt. That’s where the semicolon comes in.
What semicolons are for
Semicolons allow you to divide one long sentence into two parts that still remain connected to each other, with the second half reflecting back upon the first. When you’re writing you often want to add detail or expand upon the basic facts to support the point you’re making – but heaping clause upon clause can get confusing, while putting those details into separate sentences can sound choppy and spoil your flow.
(That said, Google and other search engines, which scan your copy for “readability”, don’t much care for long sentences. They assume that readers skim read text – and so short sentences contained within short paragraphs are what they favour. I choose to blithely ignore this because, well, brief and to the point just isn’t my style, as you can probably tell.)
Take this sentence, from a blog post I wrote about James Bond’s eyewear choices:
“As with many Bond-favoured labels, Vuarnet is a brand that flies under the radar; adored by those in the know it is not a common household name – rather it is exclusive and rarefied, with its sale restricted to a small group of hand-picked opticians and eyewear boutiques.”
Now, I could have put a full stop after “radar” and started a new sentence with “Adored”, and that would definitely have scored me “readability” points. But to me, the second part of that sentence builds upon the first, and the two are connected too closely to be separated by a full stop; that Vuarnet is not a common household name reinforces the point that it flies under the radar, and the fact that it is only sold in a few exclusive boutiques gives further evidence for this. (Yes, I just did it again there – I really like semicolons.)
Semicolons: the rules
There a couple to remember. One is that the two parts of the sentence must be sentences in themselves, ie, you could divide them with a full stop if short and choppy is your thing.
The other is that if a sentence is divided by a conjunction, you need to use a semicolon if the conjunction refers forward to the second part of the sentence – however, meanwhile and furthermore often do this. Otherwise, if punctuation is needed, then a comma will usually do. So:
“He used to travel the 30 miles to his office in London by car, train and bus, but now he works from home.”
“He used to travel the 30 miles to his office in London by car, train and bus; however, due to the reorganisation of the company, he is now able to work from home.”
“However” introduces the news about the reorganisation of the company, so a semicolon is needed here to place it firmly in the second half of the sentence. Otherwise, it could refer backwards: “He used to travel the 30 miles by car, train and bus, however,” making the sentence harder to understand. You’ll also note that in the second example the two parts of the sentence are of equal weight, providing another excellent reason to use a semicolon.
The other use for the semicolon is the division of lists that already contain a lot of internal commas. If the items being listed are themselves made up of several elements, semicolons can stop the whole thing becoming a gigantic confusing mess:
“The team is made up of the following people: Mary Jones, who is the new creative director and has worked previously at Habitat, The White Company and Ikea; Maggie Smith, who has been appointed art editor and counts Homes & Gardens, Ideal Home and Living Etc among her clients; Harriet Taylor, creative assistant, who has a background in fine art, pottery and textiles; and Ben Walker, admin assistant, who has completed internships at Liberty, Harrods and John Lewis.”
Overall, semicolons essentially act like mega-commas, when a piffling normal-sized comma just won’t do. If you don’t already use them, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them.