Primary Teaching Tips Semicolons

The mysterious semicolon is a punctuation mark that often plays havoc with students learning to write, as well as with freelance writers. While it is one of the more obscure punctuation marks, semicolons used correctly help to make writing an art.  

What is a semicolon?

Think about a semicolon this way. It is almost a period, but not quite. It is almost a comma, but not quite. In other words, if a sentence needs partial closure, but not complete closure because it is an incomplete thought, the use of a semicolon is an excellent way to punctuate that sentence.  

Consider this example. “The bitterly cold, winter day seemed foreboding; its saving grace was the gorgeous sunshine.”

When should you use a semicolon?

The article entitled “The Semicolon” discusses the grammatical use of semicolons.

“You will usually use the semicolon to link independent clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction. Semicolons should join only those independent clauses that are closely related in meaning.”

Quite often, a period can replace a semicolon and create a short sentence. If there are too many short or fragmented sentences in a paragraph or an article, reading becomes stilted and uncomfortable. In other words, writing sentences using semicolons correctly helps to reduce fragmentation and allows appropriate thoughts and ideas to stand together, actually strengthening and empowering them, at the same time.

A semicolon may replace a comma when there are lists of thoughts and ideas that tend to make reading difficult. Human minds comprehend and process lists to some extent, but may absorb just the first few in a long list. In other words, writers need to give readers ‘a break’ and construct collections in such a way that similar thoughts and ideas stand together. When there is progression or a continuation of thought, separating them with semicolons is grammatically more appropriate and easier to read.

What is the difference between semicolons and colons?

Distinguishing semicolons from colons is important. The semicolon allows continuation of a sentence; a colon places emphasis on what follows. This may be words in list format.

Consider this example. “Understanding punctuation marks: Periods, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks and question marks.”    

In titles, a colon is usually appropriate where a semicolon may not be. Consider the following example. “Etiquette of correct grammar: How to use semicolons correctly”.       

In Internet language, a semicolon and/or a colon can take on another meaning as an emoticon, often called a ‘smiley’ in terms of its usage. The colon depicts a ‘happy’ face, while the semicolon depicts a ‘winking’, as well as a ‘happy’ face.    

While some may argue that grammatical rules for the use of the semicolon (and the colon) will gradually be outmoded because of computer ‘shorthand’, the  readability of what is written will always be a major factor in successful writing, regardless of the era.  

Semicolons play a major role in how easily articles can be read, so the correct use of them is important.