Semicolons: Why Use Them?

Even if they understand its grammatical placement, many of my students overuse the semicolon. They do so because they have just learned how to use the semicolon, so it’s a bright and shiny new toy for them to play with. My students too often have a sense that semicolons look fancier than periods and commas, which leads them to the next false assumption that those who use semicolons must look smarter, in the eyes of readers, than those who just use dull old periods and commas.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The semicolon—although it does have a specialized place in our writing—is nothing special. In addition to the grammatical conditions that allow for it (appearing between two complete sentences), the semicolon also follows some stylistic criteria: the sentences it combines should be closely related such that (1) the two sentences should share a strong—almost inextricable—connection of ideas and (2) that connection is so loud and clear that it does not need to be explained or spelled out with a sentence-combining word like and or because.

These are the stylistic considerations of the semicolon. While many people understand the grammatical considerations, they do not consider the stylistic considerations.

Confused? Some examples will help. Consider the following semicolon combinations. All of the examples are grammatically correct, but not all of them are stylistically fitting. Can you tell which ones are correctly used and which ones are overused? Take a look (and don’t scroll down and cheat!). . . .

1. The summers in New York State are pleasant; the temperature is usually in the high 80s.

2. I enjoy bass fishing while visiting South Carolina; Italian restaurants are good.

3. My colleague Malkiel is our college’s Writing Coordinator; our college has a good library.

4. My seven-month-old son likes to be near me; he’s sleeping next to me as I write this article.

5. I love explaining punctuation; however, I look forward to addressing other writing topics.

Semicolon Answer Key:

1. The summers in New York State are pleasant; the temperature is usually in the high 80s.

This semicolon placement is fitting. The second sentence is a direct clarification of the first sentence—a more specific way of saying the same thing.

2. I enjoy bass fishing while visiting South Carolina; Italian restaurants are good.

This is not an appropriate semicolon placement. There is no direct connection between the idea that “Italian restaurants are good” and the idea that I enjoy bass fishing in South Carolina. This disconnection is a bit obvious (since this sentence is a warm-up), and really these two sentences would not even be adjacent to one another without some connective explanation to bridge the two ideas.

3. My colleague Malkiel is our college’s Writing Coordinator; our college has a good library.

This is not an appropriate semicolon placement, but indeed this one is trickier than the previous example of semicolon overuse. In this example both sentences involve “our college, but beyond that, there is no direct connection between the notion that Malkiel is the Writing Coordinator and the college having a good library. (Now, if I had been writing about how the college has a good writing program, the semicolon would be appropriate.)

4. My seven-month-old son likes to be near me; he’s sleeping next to me as I write this article.

This is an appropriate semicolon placement. The second sentence is evidence of the first sentence. These two sentences go together and are inseparable—just like me and my son.

5. I love explaining punctuation; however, I look forward to addressing other writing topics.

This is an appropriate semicolon placement. Notice the conjunctive adverb however after the semicolon. Recalling my previous article on semicolons, the semicolon can (and in most cases, should) precede a conjunctive adverb to combine two sentences. However, you can follow a period with a conjunctive adverb, as I did in this sentence. Most of the time, though, conjunctive adverbs like however express a close connection between the two sentences, so the semicolon is preferable.

Next Up: The Semicolon Exception

Let’s review the two requirements for placing a semicolon:

Grammatical Requirement: A semicolon combines two complete sentences. If you cannot place a period there, you should not be able to place a semicolon there either–with only one exception. (See below and see the next article.)

Stylistic Requirement: A semicolon’s purpose is to combine two sentences that are closely and inextricably connected such that they should flow together in a grammatical, syntactical sense. If there is no such connection between these two sentences, then they should not be combined with a semicolon.

Now, there is one more grammatical situation that can call for a semicolon, and you might think of that situation as an exception to the grammatical criterion that a semicolon must fall between two complete, standalone sentences. Indeed, there are rare cases where we can place a semicolon to combine non-sentence parts.

Want to learn more about that exception—about the specialized function of the semicolon? (Of course you do!) Click the link below to read on.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Semicolons: Where to Place Them (and Where Not to Place Them)

Be careful not to misuse the semicolon. Remember: with one small exception (explained in an upcoming article), use semicolons only to connect two complete sentences. Any time you want to add a fragment or a sentence part to a complete sentence, a comma will do fine.

In other words . . .

Use commas for connecting a non-sentence to a sentence:

Structure: Sentence, Non-Sentence Conclusion

Example: Ed’s car was in the garage for a week, although it still needed more work.

Or the non-sentence can be the introduction for the sentence:

Structure: Non-Sentence Introduction, Sentence

Example: Although it still needed more work, Ed’s car was in the garage for a week.

And here’s yet another way to order the sentence structure: the non-sentence can even go in the middle of the ongoing sentence; just set that interrupting non-sentence off on both sides with commas:

Structure: Sentence Beginning, Non-Sentence Interrupter, Sentence End

Example: Ed’s car, although it still needed more work, was in the garage for a week.

Now here’s the structure for placing a semicolon. Notice that both combined parts are complete sentences:

Structure: Sentence; Sentence

Example: Ed’s car was in the garage for a week; the car’s steering systems needed repairs.

Now consider the following example of semicolon misuse:

I enjoy my job; which is why I come across as enthusiastic. (Incorrect: misused semicolon)

Here’s the structure for this error:

Sentence; Non-Sentence Conclusion (Incorrect Structure)

Notice how in the sentence above, the second part (beginning with which) is not a complete sentence. In that case, the writer is not combining two complete sentences, so a semicolon is not needed. So what does the writer need?

The answer: a comma! A comma is all we need for combining a sentence with a non-sentence part. Here’s the corrected version:

I enjoy my job, which is why I come across as enthusiastic. (Correct)

Sentence, Non-Sentence Conclusion (Correct)

With these examples in mind, here’s a quick-and-easy rule of thumb for semicolon placement: use a semicolon only in those places where you could use a period. A semicolon is like a period, in the sense that both symbols separate complete sentences; however, the semicolon creates flow between the sentences, while a period is a complete separation.

Look at the example sentences below. Although different, both are grammatically correct:

I love my iPod. I listen to music often. (Correct: separated by a period)

I love my iPod; I listen to music often. (Also correct: combined with a semicolon)

So if they are both grammatically correct, which version is better? Well, in this case, the second one is better because it creates grammatical flow between two ideas that are so close in meaning that they practically beg to go together. Semicolon placement, then, is a matter of both grammatical correctness and stylistic appropriateness. (The next article will discuss these choices.)

Place a Semicolon before Sentence-Combining Conjunctive Adverbs Like However.

We have looked at how semicolons can be placed between two complete sentences to combine them into one larger, flowing super-sentence (what grammarians would call “a compound sentence”).

There is one more way that we can place a semicolon to combine two sentences. A semicolon can (and usually should) precede a sentence-combining technique that those of us in the English business call a conjunctive adverb.

While a term like conjunctive adverb may sound complex, chances are, you use conjunctive adverbs quite often. Here is a list of frequently used conjunctive adverbs. Do you recognize any from your own writing? . . .

Conjunctive Adverbs:

Accordingly          Additionally          Also          Comparatively

Consequently          Furthermore          Hence          However

Instead          Likewise          Moreover          Nevertheless

Nonetheless          Rather          Similarly          Still

Therefore          Thus

Here are some example sentence combinations involving a semicolon + conjunctive adverb:

Many new writers have seen techniques like the semicolon; however, these novice writers may not feel confident that they use such techniques correctly in their own writing.

I have noticed that my students often overuse the semicolon by placing it between a sentence and a non-sentence; therefore, I wrote these articles to help students and other writers with semicolon placement.

Punctuation is important to the accuracy of our writing; moreover, it is a critical part of writing with personality and pizzazz.

I want to draw your attention to two features of the sentences above:

  1. The example sentences listed above are long, thoughtful sentences. They discuss serious “hmm” matters, so a reflective and thoughtful “hmm” combiner works best–and that’s precisely what conjunctive adverbs are for. They create a longer, more thoughtful sentence combination than their shorter cousins, the coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Also, if you recall an earlier article on comma functions, a sentence-combining coordinating conjunction is preceded by a comma. (If you missed that article on conjunctions and commas, read it by clicking here.)
  2. The sentence-combining  conjunctive adverb is preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma. Read the first sample sentence aloud. When you hear “pause however pause,” the first pause is a semicolon, and the second pause is a comma.

One more point on punctuating conjunctive adverbs: as with any semicolon usage, you can replace the semicolon with a period if you want a full break between the first sentence and the second sentence. In other words, conjunctive adverbs can also begin new sentences, like this:

Semicolons are extremely useful for creating flow in sentences. However, I may prefer instead to create a sharp, assertive break between two sentences.

(Notice, though, that a comma still follows the conjunctive adverb.)

Next Up:

Semicolon Placement: Not Just a Matter of Grammatical Correctness

This article has explained the grammatical considerations of semicolon placement; however, just because a semicolon can be placed between two sentences does not mean that it should be placed there. With that point in mind, the next article explains why we would choose to place a semicolon to create flow between two sentences. Click the link below to read that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

The Three Dimensions of Writing

In the previous blog, we considered John Trimble’s definition of effective writing: “Writing is the art of creating desired effects.” When applying that definition to persuasive writing, we have this definition:

Persuasive writing is the art of creating the desired effect of persuading readers.

Or, to shorten the definition . . .

Persuasive writing is the art of persuading readers.

So how exactly does a writer achieve persuasion? What is the anatomy of a persuasive essay? In short, you should think of writing as involving three aspects:

1. The writer (ethos)

2. The writing itself (logos)

3. The reader (pathos)

Every writer—or at least, every writer who wants to be successful—must consider all three of these writing aspects. They are all part of the rhetorical game. The writer wants to give a sense that she is an authority on the topic, or at least that she knows her topic well enough to write with some authority. At the same time, she does not want to come across as stodgy or inaccessible. Some personality (infused with a healthy smidgen of honesty) helps give the reader the sense that the writer is a friendly, sincere soul—but one who still knows her stuff. That’s ethos: the identity of the writer as transmitted through the writing.

What about the writing itself? Is it clearly written? Does the argument make sense? Does the argument ever contradict itself? Is the research cited pertinent to the writer’s arguments or points? That’s logos: the logic, unity, and essential clarity of the writing.

But even if the writer’s points are clear and well argued, who wants to read a dry, clinical list of pertinent data and formalized arguments? Writers win readers over not only by appealing to readers’ intellects, but also by evoking emotional responses. A good writer makes people think, but she also makes them feel. This aspect of style infuses otherwise dull facts and mute statistics with humanity and purpose. Emotional responses come in many forms. Does the writer want to make the reader laugh? Does she want readers to cry? Does she want her readers to be angry about the issue she’s discussing? Is she writing to shock her readers? Maybe she wants a bit of all four responses. That’s pathos: the emotional impact that the writing has on the reader.

The figure below shows these three essential aspects of writing. Consider the writing practices for achieving each effect. Also, while considering the image below, consider how there is an area where all three effects overlap. That area of complete overlap represents writing that balances logic (logos), character (ethos), and emotion (pathos). As a rule, that center of balance is where we want to be, although some writing situations call for us to emphasize some aspects over others. (For example, a lab report might be more logos-driven, while a personal response paper will emphasize a bit more ethos and pathos.)

The Three Dimensions of Writing: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos

The goal is to balance all three of these aspects in your writing. Experienced writers often achieve all three simultaneously. “Simultaneously? How is that done?” you might ask.

I’ll show you. Here’s an example from Bart Ehrman, one of my favorite non-fiction writers. These passages are drawn from the introduction to Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. Ehrman writes,

When I was young I always found the Christmas Eve service to be the most meaningful worship experience of the year. The sacred hymns and carols, the prayers and praises, the solemn readings from Scripture, the silent reflections on this most powerful of nights, when the divine Christ came into the world as a human infant . . .

What moved me most, however, was the congregational prayer, which did not come from the Book of Common Prayer but was written for the occasion, spoken loudly and clearly by a layperson standing in the aisle, his voice filling the vast space of the cavernous church around us. “You came into the darkness and made a difference,” he said. “Come into the darkness again.” This was the refrain of the prayer, repeated several times, in a deep and sonorous voice. And it brought tears to my eyes as I sat with bowed head, listening and thinking. But these were not tears of joy. They were tears of frustration. If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the Christ child, bringing salvation to the world, why is the world in such a state? Why doesn’t he enter into the darkness again? Where is the presence of God in this world of pain and misery? Why is the darkness so overwhelming? . . .

“You came into the darkness and you made a difference. Come into the darkness again.” Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t. The darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too palpable. During the time that it took for this Christmas Eve service to conclude, more than 700 children in the world would have died of hunger; 250 others from drinking unsafe water; and nearly 300 other people from malaria. Not to mention the ones who had been raped, mutilated, tortured, dismembered, and murdered.

No matter our position on the existence of god, the sheer power of Ehrman’s prose is undeniable. It possesses a moving level of sincere frustration (ethos), and Ehrman presents some shocking numbers (logos) to give reasons for his frustration–and perhaps to transmit some of that frustration to the reader (pathos). In short, this writing represents a perfect fusion of all three writing aspects.

Four Essentials for Effective Writing

Here are John Trimble’s four essentials for winning readers. Consider how Ehrman’s writing in the passage above exhibits all four of these essentials:

1. Have something to say that’s worth their attention.

Ehrman’s discussion presents a topic that is relevant, for religious and non-religious readers alike: considering human suffering in light of popular religious beliefs.

2. Be sold on its validity and importance yourself so you can pitch it with conviction.

Can you feel Ehrman’s conviction in the writing–writing that is based on his life experience?

3. Furnish strong arguments that are well supported with concrete proof.

Consider the specific numbers that Ehrman presents. Notice that he presents a range of examples by discussing different forms of human suffering.

4. Use confident language—vigorous verbs, strong nouns, and assertive phrasing.

Verbs like affirmrepeated and mutilated are–without a doubt–vigorous verbs. Strong nouns include reflections, darkness, frustration, and misery. We hear assertive phrasing, for example, when Ehrman writes, “Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t.”

These are the elements of any successful writing strategy. Consider how Trimble’s four essentials are building blocks for producing ethos, logos, and pathos in our writing. Those three effects–those three dimensions of writing–create persuasion: the core “desired effect” of persuasive writing.

Next Up: All About Commas

One key to producing the desired effects of writing is having control over the movement and tone of a sentence. Punctuation is how writers do this.

Perhaps the most confusing punctuation technique is also the most frequent: the comma. The next part of The Writer’s Toolbox will help you understand the comma and its applications so that you can add this useful punctuation tool to your writing toolbox.

If you want to see the comma made simple, read on!

Here’s the link:

Works Cited

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important QuestionWhy We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

The Rules Practices of Effective Writing

Consider, for a moment, all of the grammatical and stylistic rules so often taught to children by parents, teachers, and other mentors. Too often, those rules seem disconnected from one another–an arbitrary list of do’s and dont’s for would-be writers to memorize and force upon their prose. For now, we should forget about those rules, or at least forget about them in the sense that they exist for their own sake. They serve a higher purpose: producing effective writing. That said, when those rules do not make for effective writing (and sometimes they don’t), we should bend–and even break–those rules.

With that point in mind, dear reader, I want you to move away from the idea that there are any hard-and-fast rules of writing. The “rules” exist to make the writing effective, and not because of any decree issued by some imagined circle of Grammar Gods. In the upcoming blogs, I will discuss many practices of effective writing, and I prefer to talk about practices, instead of pontificating about rules. At the end of the day, the goal of effective writing is just that–to be effective: to achieve our desired effects for the documents we write. Practices will get us there; rules will not.

Return to the analogy, mentioned in an earlier blog of the writer’s toolbox: a collection of techniques that the writer can call upon to produce effective writing (and also the inspiration behind this blog’s title). A skilled carpenter does not have a set of rules that force him to use a tool the same way for every situation. There is no rule in carpentry that says, “You must always use the back part of the hammer to extract a bent nail from the wood. If you use any other tool besides a hammer for this task, you will fail as a carpenter.”

Nonsense! The carpenter looks at the situation, and he finds the best tool for the job. What if that nail is in a spot where the carpenter cannot fit the hammer and gain leverage? Or what if the head of the nail has broken off? The carpenter then uses another tool, perhaps a strong pair of pliers, combined with some lubricating element, to remove that nail.

Writing is the same. The “rules” are just guidelines–practices. The skilled writer, like the skilled carpenter, works on a case-by-case basis, choosing the right tool for the right job. And the analogy doesn’t stop there. Just as the carpenter works with his overall goal in mind (building a sturdy but elegant table, for example),  so too does the writer keep her overall goal in mind: producing an effective document that will move her intended audience towards her perspective.

Writing, then, must begin with goals–and that just happens to be the subject of my next blog. Interested? Check it out:

The Strategy of Writing: Writing Begins with Goals

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).