The Semicolon Pandemic
; ) <----This is sadly the most common use of the semicolon, because, let's face it: no one really knows how to use one.
Which of the following sentences uses the semicolon correctly?
1. “I received five gifts for my birthday; new pajamas, a book, some candy, a Starbucks gift card, and a snow globe.”
This should be written: “I received five gifts for my birthday: new pajamas, a book, some candy, a Starbucks gift card, and a snow globe.”
When making a list, use a colon–not a semicolon.
2. “If three pieces of cake is a lot; then, I ate too much birthday cake!”
This should be written: “If three pieces of cake is a lot, then, I ate too much birthday cake!”
Note that a semicolon is a weak period of two independent clauses. If you take the sentence from one side of the semicolon, it should be able to stand alone. “If three pieces of cake is a lot” is a dependent clause, meaning it can’t stand alone. If you wanted to rewrite this sentence so that you could use a semicolon, consider:
“Three pieces of cake is a lot; I ate too much birthday cake!”
3. “I have the same birthday as Will Smith; do you know what time it is?”
There really isn’t a way to re-write this. While both halves of the sentences are independent clauses, so a semicolon can be used, the two clauses are not related. Keep in mind that a semicolon is a weak period; it is a brief pause. Therefore, whatever you are writing on must be tangible to the subject on both sides of the semicolon. The sentence would have been acceptable to a Grammar Nazi if it were written like so:
“I have the same birthday as Will Smith; he is my favorite celebrity.”
“I’m getting tired from consuming all this sugar; do you know what time it is?”
4. “Since it’s my birthday; I’m going to do all the things I enjoy.”
This should be written: “Since it’s my birthday, I’m going to do all the things I enjoy.”
Remember when proofreading to look at either side of a semicolon and ask yourself if that clause could stand alone as a sentence. “It’s my birthday” could stand alone, but putting “Since” in front of it causes it to depend upon a further explanation, or a clause.
QUICK STEPS TO ENSURE YOU HAVE USED A SEMICOLON CORRECTLY
1. Examine your sentence. Example: “I’ve been feeling sick; I should go to the doctor.”
Look at the first half of the sentence and make sure it can stand alone as an independent clause.
“I’ve been feeling sick.”
Now that you know the first half can stand alone, ensure that the second half can as well.
“I should go to the doctor.”
You have used a semicolon correctly. Is the context correct?
2. Remember that the semicolon is a weak period. In other words, if it made sense to use a period instead of a semicolon, you should. A semicolon is a moderate pause while a period is a full-on stop that allows you to change the subject. For example, “I’ve been feeling sick; I wonder how the Yankees are doing” is a sentence that misuses a semicolon. If the clauses are too out of context, a period should go in the place of the semicolon.
What’s a good way to tell if the second clause is too out-of-context for the first clause? Put a transition word into the sentence. If the sentence makes sense, then the semicolon makes sense. If it doesn’t, try a period. Let’s use some of our earlier examples.
“Tomorrow is my birthday, and I’m really excited to see my friends.”
Good. Use a semicolon.
“Three pieces of cake is a lot, therefore I ate too much birthday cake!”
Good! Use a semicolon.
“I’m getting tired from consuming all this sugar, so do you know what time it is?”
GOOD! Use a semicolon.
“I’ve been feeling sick, and I should go to the doctor.”
GOOD!! Use a semicolon.
“I have the same birthday as Will Smith, so do you know what time it is?”
BAD. Do NOT use a semicolon. Use a period, or change the sentence completely.
You can do this; just keep practicing.
About The Author
|Writing Tutor And Study Skills Master|
|My name is Vanessa. I recently graduated from CSU Stanislaus magna cum laude and was also awarded national honors recognition. There, I worked several jobs, including tutoring pre-med and pre-nursing students in Human Anatomy, while being the lab assistant. I also worked for a couple of years helpin...|