The Economy of Semicolons

I don't think semicolons are used nearly as much as they ought to be. I've seen a lot of commas where semicolons should have been, but rarely the other way around. The semicolon's job is to separate related parts of the same sentence, and in the process, it takes the place of those connectors I mentioned in the previous post. It can also take the place of a period, as we’ll see shortly.

I don't like the color of that house; it's too close to mauve.

You could substitute a connecting word such as because for the semicolon in this sentence, but the semicolon is easier, and quickens the sentence a bit. You could also use a period, thereby breaking the sentence in two, but the second sentence would be a bit short if any degree of formality is required.

I don't like the color of that house. It's too close to mauve.

It's okay, and sometimes you want ultra-short, snappy sentences. But generally, I like semicolons; I think they're cool, and economical, too. One rule to keep in mind when you’re using a semicolon is that there has to be a complete sentence on both sides of it. No fragments, in other words.

I don't like the color of that house; too close to mauve.

Now the sentence isn't okay anymore, because the part on the right of the semicolon is a fragment. If you were to substitute a period for the semicolon in this sentence, it would probably become more evident. Too close to mauve is not only a really, really short sentence, but a partial one at that. Not that there's no such thing as a one or two word sentence, but in general, this one doesn't qualify. If you're feeling lucky and you really want to preserve the sentence structure, you might be better off with an em dash.

I don't like the color of that housetoo close to mauve.

Although you don't see it done all that much in everyday writing, it's okay to use more than one semicolon in the same sentence. It avoids confusion if there are already commas all over the place in a series of things.

Branford needed hammers and nails, which were in short supply; shingles, because the roof was leaking; and power tools, just in case the electricity came back on.

Maybe it goes without saying, but if you were to use commas instead of those three semicolons in the sentence above, the result would be an unfortunate number of commas. The semicolons are preventing fragmentation without the need to break the thing up into two or three sentences, and sometimes, that's exactly what the sentence doctor ordered.



  1. Anonymous3:01 AM UTC

    That's a great point about semicolons helping to quicken sentences! People often talk about punctuation breaking ideas apart, but they rarely mention the power of punctuation to accelerate the flow of ideas. Quick sentences are a vital part of what makes a good book a "page turner"!

  2. Anonymous4:19 AM UTC

    Thanks, Craig! Just saw your site for the first time. It's, like, groovy!