Use Semicolons to Your Advantage

It seems that many writers don’t understand the semicolon, or they don’t know how or when to use it. Some writers just don’t like it and never use it in their writing, which is a shame, because the semicolon is such a versatile little thing, and when used correctly, it can change the dynamic of a sentence.

The semicolon (;) isn’t a comma and it’s not a full stop. Whereas a comma indicates a brief pause to separate two independent clauses, and a full stop indicates the end of a sentence, the semicolon is considered stronger than a comma because while it can act as a brief pause, it can draw the reader’s attention to something specific in the narrative and can add context and it can bring clarity to your sentences. Writers use it to emphasise a connection of elements within a sentence, as well as to separate those elements within the sentence.

A semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses (stand-alone sentences), in the absence of a co-ordinating conjunction (words such as for, but, and, so etc.), for example:

The street lamp glimmered; shadows curled in wait.

In this example, the semicolon separates the two independent clauses, yet it also links them together.  This creates a different feel – a sense of immediacy. The dynamic of the sentence would be different if treated separately, for example:

The street lamp glimmered. Shadows curled in wait.

The use of a full stop separates the two sentences, and this presents a slightly different context to the narrative. The full stop is literal – the reader will stop, and then read the next sentence, so there is no sense of immediacy. These two sentences can also be further separated by a co-ordinating conjunction, for example:

The street lamp glimmered and shadows curled in wait.

Here, the co-ordinating conjunction ‘and’ links the two sentences, and again, the feel of the narrative is different to the other two examples. This is why it’s important for writers to choose how they present sentences to the reader, because emphasis and meaning is everything, and semicolons are a great way to emphasise the connection and immediacy between words within sentences.

In a similar way, writers can use a semicolon where there are lists separated by commas, for example:

John picked up the flashlight, rope, knife, and hooks; he knew the fear, determination, and the pain it would cause, but it would be worth it.

The map showed the north side, south side, ground floor, and upper floors; areas of interest, places to investigate; doors and shafts and huge empty halls.

The examples show how the semicolon not only separates independent sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, yet etc.), but helps to limit the number of commas required. This highlights the slight pauses where they need to be, but also the semicolons separate the clauses without making the narrative stutter. It’s a good way to make a sentence complex, yet smooth. 

Another way to use the semicolon is to place it between two independent clauses which are linked by a transitional expression. A transitional phrase or expression contains conjunctive adverbs that are used to join independent clauses (words such as accordingly, so, consequently, nevertheless, thus), so when you when you join the independent clauses, use a semicolon, for example:

She hated the way he had spoken to her; consequently, she tried not to let her emotions show.

The need to keep track of him seemed difficult; nevertheless, a new strategy appeared likely.

Of course, some sentences just don’t need a semicolon because they don’t have linked elements, or they can’t be connected in any way, so commas or full stops do the job.

One very common mistake that writers make is to use the semicolon in place of the comma, usually by placing a semicolon between a dependent clause and an independent clause, for example:

Because the flowers were in bloom; the colours became so vibrant.

The example is ungrammatical. In this case, the dependent clause (Because the flowers were in bloom) should be separated from the independent clause (the colours became so vibrant), by a comma.

The same is true for separating items in a list – that’s also the job of a comma.

Pay close attention to the placement of semicolons.  If used correctly, and sparingly, they can change your narrative in different ways by making certain things stand out to the reader or by adding context or depth to create the right effect.  They’re useful for a reason, so don’t for get to use them.


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