Punctuation lovers are always complaining about the decline of the semicolon. It seems to be gradually disappearing from the printed word entirely, being replaced by the comma, which serves a related but different purpose.
Sadly, the distinction between the comma and the semicolon is a really useful one for comprehending sentences correctly the first time.
The rule for when to use a semicolon is actually really straightforward; once you know it, you’ll probably never confuse it and the comma again.
Use a semicolon when you want to connect two strongly related phrases that could stand on their own as sentences.
Here’s an example I saw on the Manchester Metrolink tram the other day. When a stop is announced, an LED marquee displays something like the following:
This is an Altrincham service, the next stop will be Cornbrook.
Here a comma is used when a semicolon would be much better. Reading this sentence with a comma causes the reader to double-back and try to work out how the second part fits with the first part. A semicolon would break the sentence up properly and alert the reader to there being two separate phrases in the sentence.
This is an Altrincham service; the next stop will be Cornbrook.
The stop system gives us four “levels” of stop and, in most cases, the rules are pretty simple:
- Comma [,]: Most of the time the comma is used to delimit non-defining clauses, like “in most cases” above. A non-defining clause is a piece of the sentence that can be removed but cannot stand on its own as a sentence. Commas are also used to separate items in a list.
- Semicolon [;]: As above, the semicolon is used to join two phrases that could stand alone as sentences but are strongly related to one another.
- Colon [:]: The colon does the same thing as the semicolon, except it usually ties together one phrase with an explanation of that phrase. For example, “Rich is a blogger: someone who writes pedantic articles on the web.”
- Full stop [.]: Separates entire sentences, as I’m sure you know.
Join me in reclaiming the semicolon and making long sentences easier to read!