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Semicolonoscopy

30 August 201506:36AMlinguistics

Today's request comes from Jess Smith, of Perth, Western Australia. Jess writes:

Please write a blog post about appropriate uses of the semicolon.

Happy to help, Jess! I have a long answer and a short answer for you.

The short answer is this: None at all.

But here's the long answer.

Semicolons are a beast comprised entirely of edge cases. Like most solutions for edge cases they're highly specialized and work very well at what they do - but if you're using one, it's a sign that you're pushing the English language to the very limits of its useful ability, and you should probably consider restructuring instead.

There are two of these cases - that honestly, you should be trying as much as possible to avoid.

The first, and simplest to understand, is lists. Semicolons are an acceptable separator for successive items in a list, particularly if those items in a list are long enough to have the standard separator - that is, commas - as a part of them.

While this is okay, if you're considering using semicolons in this way you should probably look into using something like dot points, or simplifying your list items, or making each item its own paragraph. Because the resulting list is going to be very long and very messy, and quite aside from the semicolons, is going to be quite a chore to read.

The other use of semicolons is in joining two or more independent but related clauses. Let me break this down.

A clause, semantically speaking, is what we call a predicate. It makes a single statement about the state of the world. Grammatically, that means it contains at least one verb to be done, and usually at least one noun to do the doing as well.

Clauses come in two types. Dependent clauses cannot stand as sentences on their own. In a sentence like "The road which runs next to mine is closed for extensive re-surfacing," the "which runs next to mine" is a dependent clause. It contains a verb (runs) and makes a statement about the world (something is running somewhere), but cannot stand on its own. To say "The road is being resurfaced. Which runs next to mine." is not just technically wrong, it looks bloody weird. (Mostly because the verb is missing a subject.)

Independent clauses, on the other hand, can stand on their own. We could correct our statement above by changing it to something like, "The road runs next to mine. It is being resurfaced." Two independent clauses. Both with a subject and a verb. So, two valid sentences.

Enter the semicolon. The semicolon separates clauses which technically could stand on their own as sentences, but which are still closely related to another, also independent, clause. So on our case, it would also be allowable to write, "The road is being resurfaced; it runs next to mine." Note that these are both still independent clauses. If the thing after your semicolon can't stand on its own, it doesn't belong after the semicolon.

These are allowable uses of semicolons. They are almost never, as our question asks, appropriate. Because an independent clause separated by a semicolon is by definition capable of standing on its own as a sentence, it's probably better to just do that instead. And if your clause isn't actually independent at all, then you can't use a semicolon anyway. Either way, if you're even considering using a semicolon, your sentence is probably going to be too long for a regular human to parse easily. It'll be difficult to edit, difficult to restructure, and difficult to read.

Basically, what your writing needs in most cases isn't semicolons. It's better editing.

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