business writing skills require semicolons
Punctuation

The Secret of Semicolons…or How to Use This Sexy Piece of Punctuation Correctly

This week’s blog post is brought to you by one of my kids—because I just found out I didn’t teach her how to use semicolons. OK, maybe it was the school’s job when she was younger, but really, I work with words for a living. I teach business writing skills. I know my punctuation. And somehow I didn’t pass along this valuable information. Parenting fail!

So I’m passing it along now, in a very public way. (Emma, are you paying attention?)

I heart semicolons
It’s too bad people misuse them. Semicolons are unique! They are perhaps the only punctuation we have that’s so nuanced in its usage. A semicolon is halfway between a period and a comma. You use it when a period is too strong of a stop, but a comma is too soft. It’s kind of like a stylistic device, if you will. (And it’s easy to remember that it’s a blend of a period and a comma because that’s what it looks like!)

I actually think the semicolon is kind of sexy, with its subtlety and restraint, plus that sassy little swoosh shape. Is there another kind of punctuation we can describe that way? I don’t think so!

The proper way to use semicolons
So, what exactly are we supposed to do with this subtle little dot plus swoosh mark? What is its purpose? Check out how this writer uses it in this sentence:

TITIN is showing the world that fitness gear doesn’t have to be bulky and cumbersome; their comfortable, confidence-boosting product is changing the way people train and exercise—and their customers are very passionate about that.

That is perfect. The writer could have used a period after the word cumbersome, but using a semicolon blends the two statements together. A comma was not an option at all. You see that, right? A period was an option, but a semicolon is appropriate here—a comma, no way.

In contrast, check out this sentence:

Try creating a separate discussion for introductions, it’ll provide the group with one destination for welcoming new folks.

Do you see what’s wrong? The comma is too soft. It doesn’t work here. These are two statements, not two clauses. They are too different to be “joined” by a comma. A period would have worked, although it would make a harsh break. A semicolon would have been perfect. It would have separated the two statements, but left them just a little connected for flow. Subtle, right?

Beyond the sexy: Semicolons can be practical too
Semicolons can also fill in for commas when needed for clarity. For example, if you will end up using commas within commas, you can use semicolons as the “exterior” commas and the commas for the “interior” as in this example:

She ate smoky ham that Jim had sliced just for her; eggs cooked over-easy with runny yokes, and gathered just that morning from the busy chickens; and sourdough toast generously buttered, using butter she had churned the day before.

(You know, I’m sure there’s some kind of language or wording for describing that usage, and someone will let me  know how I’ve erred after this post gets published, but you get the point, right?)

Semicolon pop quiz!
Now that you are more familiar with the sexy semicolon, here’s your pop quiz: Which of these two sentences uses correct punctuation and why?

  1. Fraudulent charges aren’t always hundreds or thousands of dollars, they could be just a few bucks if someone is testing the waters with your information.
  2. Fraudulent charges aren’t always hundreds or thousands of dollars; they could be just a few bucks if someone is testing the waters with your information.

(Quiet time while you read these….ssshhhh….ding!)

It’s B. A period after the word dollars would have worked; a comma does not. And a semicolon is perfect—but not required. It separates the two statements enough, because they need more than the comma can do, but still leaves them a little bit connected. Nuance!

I hope that little parenting fix was useful and that semicolons will find a proper place in your punctuation moving forward.

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