The semicolon is sadly neglected; it should be used more often. It’s a wonderful punctuation mark that enables connection, highlights cause and effect, and helps efficient prose.
The main problem is many people don’t know when to use it. It seems extraneous, stuck halfway between a comma and a full stop, as if it can’t make up its mind. I recall hours of punctuation exercises in primary school, drumming into us the correct use of a comma and full stop, but nothing on the semicolon. “Well aren’t they enough to be getting on with?” By the time we reached secondary school, we were supposed to have mastered basic grammar, and any time spent on punctuation was to shore up those fundamental principles. The semicolon was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
Use more semicolons!
They are more forceful that a puny comma, and more agreeable than the dead-end full stop; they have the power to hold two complete clauses in tension.
The most common use of a semicolon is between two independent clauses that are not connected by a conjunction:
Martin Luther King was a great leader; his speeches were inspiring.
Instead, these clauses could be divided by a full stop and stand alone as separate sentences:
Martin Luther King was a great leader. His speeches were inspiring.
Or they could be linked by a conjunction, in which case a comma is needed:
Martin Luther King was a great leader, and his speeches were inspiring.
The examples show that the semicolon is the most effective way to divide these clauses, as it demonstrates continuity and cause and effect. It indicates that King’s leadership qualities stemmed from his ability to motivate and move his audience.
Splitting the clauses into two sentences with a full stop creates a disjunction and puts a distance between King’s leadership and oratorical skills. Linking the clauses with a conjunction weakens the connection; it seems as if King’s speech-making talents are an afterthought, or secondary to his authority.
A semicolon can be used when independent clauses are linked by an adverb such as accordingly, besides, hence, however, indeed, therefore, or thus:
The kitten failed to make the jump; therefore she started washing herself to regain her dignity.
He was too preoccupied with his camera to notice the approaching herd of wildebeest; hence he was trampled by the stampede.
One exception is in aphoristic sentences where the phrases work better together:
I think therefore I am. Here today gone tomorrow.
A semicolon is also used to separate items in a list, when those items have internal punctuation:
And now for the football results: Everton 3, Liverpool 1; Chelsea 0, West Ham United 1; Manchester United 2, Watford 4 …
The comedian listed the unfortunate events: He fell down the stairs three at a time, before being kicked by the goat; he lost his footing when he stood-up, slipping on the banana skin; finally he came to rest inches from his mother-in-law, who was scowling down at him.
Happy semicolon using!
Sesame Street was brought to you today by the semicolon, The Chicago Manual of Style, Martin Luther King, a small kitten, unlikely Premiership results, Mr Strunk and Mr White, and a series of unfortunate events.