Grammar Minute – Semicolons

One punctuation option that can seem intimidating until you get used to using it is semicolons. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity around them that can make it hard to feel confident about using them, but hopefully after today you can feel empowered to use them correctly in your writing.

First, when can I use a semicolon?
There are two uses for semicolons. The first is to connect two independent clauses (complete sentences) without using a conjunction. The second is to delineate lists where at least one item has a comma.

If you haven’t already, I would consider going back to my last post, on when to use commas, before tackling semicolons, because we’re building on those same skills.

Here’s my trick: if a sentence could use a comma and “and,” then it can also use a semicolon. Alternatively, you can check to see if it could be written as two separate complete sentences.

Examples:

We were super hungry; none of us had eaten since breakfast.two independent clauses → semicolon okay!
We walked around, getting more tired by the minute.the second half of the sentence is a gerund phrase, not an independent clause → no semicolon!
I bought fresh apples; a ripe, heavy watermelon; and two tomatoes for the picnic.one of the list items has a comma → use semicolons to delineate the list
She was nervous about the visit; since they always seemed to fight.don’t use a connecting word/conjunction when you use a semicolon

As you use semicolons more frequently, they will start to feel more natural to use. It’s worth noting that semicolons can absolutely be overused; if you have semicolons multiple times in a paragraph or in every paragraph, consider switching some of them to use a comma and conjunction or splitting some into two sentences.

Your “homework”:

  1. Pick one (unedited) chapter to check. 
  2. Read through, looking for places where you have a semicolon, two short related sentences, or “, and” in your writing.
  3. Consider connecting short sentences with a semicolon to make the paragraph flow better or replacing “, and” with a semicolon to switch up your sentence structure a little.
  4. Look for lists that have commas within line items and switch to delineating the list with semicolons.
  5. Enjoy the feeling of knowing your book is even better than it was before!

Paige K

What are your grammar hang-ups? Let me know, and you may see them featured in future blog posts.

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