The semicolon: Necessary or not?

Its primary function is quite simple; it separates two short, related independent clauses. Whether it serves more to impress readers than to afford them a breather is a point of debate.

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The semicolon, like the Oxford comma, is often debated.

The marketer or copywriter either loves or hates it. No room is left for any other emotion except the angst sometimes caused by attempting to use this particular punctuation mark.

It’s an understandable emotion; the semicolon is not quite a comma nor quite a period. It’s a strange amalgamation of the two, which prompted the well-known Kurt Vonnegut quote:

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

To use another Vonnegut quote: “So it goes.” The semicolon simply isn’t the most beloved mark in the world of punctuation.

Semicolon devotees, of course, see the matter differently. They argue that the semicolon is an essential punctuation mark. They point to how it necessitates a pause—not the gasp for air caused by the comma but an actual inhale and exhale.

As Lewis Thomas avers:

Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines further on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.

Vonnegut supporters will suggest Lewis’ justification is the same one afforded the period, but they’re incorrect. A period is a full stop, an end stop. It’s the point at the end of a long hike, not the point in the middle of one.

The argument of essential or elitist notwithstanding, the question still remains as to how the punctuation mark works. Just how can a marketer use the semicolon without seeming like an elitist college graduate? Is the marketer fated to not using the thing?

The answer to the second question is “no,” as long as the marketer is willing to endure the ire of semicolon naysayers. The answer to the first has to do with using the punctuation mark—as all should be used—circumspectly.

Too many semicolons point not to a college degree but to repetitive sentence structure. Semicolons should be used only when needed.

As to the rules:

1. Use a semicolon between complementary main clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction.

Example: The drug’s side effects are not minor; they tend to exacerbate the patient’s existing symptoms.

Note: It’s important that the main clauses, which consist of a subject and predicate, be complementary; the semicolon most often separates equal and balanced sentence elements. That is, the first element or clause creates an expectation, and the second one fulfills it.

2. Use a semicolon between complementary main clauses that are related by a conjunctive adverb or other transitional expression.

Example: The doctor prescribed the medication; however, he could not have foreseen the effect it would have on his patient.

Note: Conjunctive adverbs are words such as “however,” “consequently,” and “thus.” Transitional expressions are phrases like “even so,” “for example,” and “of course.”

3. Use a semicolon to separate main clauses if they are grammatically complicated or contain commas, even with coordinating conjunctions.

4.Use a semicolon to separate items in a series if they are long or contain commas.

Where do you fall when it comes to the semicolon? Do you believe the punctuation mark is elitist or essential?

Erin Feldman is director of editorial services at Tenacity5 and author of Write Right. Click here to get more of Erin’s grammar, marketing, and PR tips. A version of this post first appeared on the Vocus blog.


One Response to “The semicolon: Necessary or not?”

    Anonymous says:

    To me, it seems you do not need the semicolon at all. Especially if you’re really not sure. It’s better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Daily Headlines

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