• Annie Tucker
  • Grammergency #4: Semicolons—Where Periods and Commas Collide
Grammergency #4: Semicolons—Where Periods and Commas Collide
Written by
Annie Tucker
January 2015
Written by
Annie Tucker
January 2015

According to Wikipedia, an Italian publisher named Aldus Manutius the Elder (1449–1515) is credited for having invented the semicolon. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, however, states that the first known use of the semicolon didn’t occur until the year 1644. Whatever the facts are, the first person responsible for stacking a period atop a comma probably had no idea how many centuries’ worth of confusion would result from that seemingly simple act.

In the year 2015, the semicolon is perhaps the most widely misunderstood and misused punctuation mark out there. In the wrong hands, it sometimes replaces a colon, sometimes stands in for a comma, and sometimes ends up forming the eyes in a winking emoticon. None of these applications honors semicolons’ intended purpose, which is twofold.

Semicolon Usage #1

The first, and most common, usage of the semicolon is to join two independent clauses in a single sentence in a way that implies a greater connection between the topics of those clauses than a period can establish. For example, “She’s the nicest person I know; that’s why she’s my best friend” reads a bit more fluidly than “She’s the nicest person I know. That’s why she’s my best friend,” and “I was sick that day; therefore, I couldn’t go to work” establishes more of a cause-and-effect relationship between the two pieces of information in this sentence than two separate sentences might. So, for all intents and purposes, a semicolon acts like a period, except with a little extra flair.

Semicolon Usage #2

The semicolon’s other primary function is to clearly separate items in a series or list that already contains internal commas. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, section 6.58, uses the following example: “The membership of the international commission was as follows: France, 4; Germany, 5; Great Britain, 1; Italy, 3; United States, 7.” See how the semicolons here make it clear to which country each score belongs? Additionally, the inclusion of semicolons in “My brother, Mike; my sister, Susan; her son, Jack; and my favorite cousin, Cynthia” keeps the appositive phrases describing these family members paired with the names to which they belong.

Once you get comfortable incorporating semicolons into your writing, you’ll realize that they’ve stood the test of time for a reason—because they’re an extremely handy addition to any writer’s arsenal. So let’s try to keep them alive for another four hundred years.

Have a grammar question? Leave it in the comments below.

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  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I am filing this one away. I have always struggled with this one!

  • Sandra Joseph

    Thanks, Annie! I can never keep track of that damn rule. I always forget whether you're supposed to use the comma or omit it when there's only one! If you have any tricks for remembering - like a little rhyme or something - please bring it on! Looking forward to your next post!


  • Annie Tucker

    Thanks so much, Sandra! Stay tuned for a new Grammergency post on the subject of comma usage soon. In the meantime, the short answer to your question is yes, you should write "my husband, Ron," since there's only one of him.

  • Sandra Joseph

    I LOVE your grammergency posts, Annie! Thank you so much! Since you've mentioned names above, I'd love a reminder about when to use/not use a comma before a name. I seem to recall some rule about omitting the comma in certain instances. Maybe it's when there is only one person in the role? Do I write, "my husband, Ron" or "my husband Ron"? Is it correct to omit the comma before a name in a case like this? (I only have one husband.) :)

  • Patricia Boswell

    Thank you Annie. This was so clear and helpful. I am trying to think of a way to use a semi colon here;but can't. ; )

  • Annie Tucker

    Yes, Lana, I do think there's a limit to using semicolons in prose, since they're so visually distinctive, but if you use them specifically for the first intended purpose I mentioned—to really underscore the connection between the topics of separate clauses in a sentence—that criterion will ideally act as a kind of quality-control system on its own. Sounds like you're doing it right already, though, so maybe you will prove just what you said: that the more you use them, the less they'll stand out.

  • Lana Pecherczyk

    Do you find that you can have too many semicolons in a prose? I'm pretty sure I use them correctly, but when I read back, they stand out like a sore thumb. I use a lot in dialogue - most of your examples were dialogue too (I'm speaking of the first usage) It's kind of the natural way people talk - quickly and in relation to the first comment. Maybe they just stand out because I'm new to understanding how to use them correctly.