On the semicolon

I loved using semicolons when I was really young. I had no idea what they represented or how one was supposed to apply them, but I just thought they looked cool, so I threw them haphazardly into my sentences wherever I thought one would fit aesthetically. The frequency only worsened when I actually found out how to use them.

The most common application of the semicolon is to set off two related independent clauses in a way that “feels better” than having them separated by a coordinating conjunction or letting them simply be two separate sentences. Of course, the feel is mostly up to the writer, but certain sentence constructions involving semicolons sound better than others.

Take the following sentence, for example: “Sam and I devoured the sandwiches; they tasted amazing.” The writer might be better served using a coordinating conjunction here instead. The independent clauses are rather short for individual sentences, and the relationship between the events in each clause is close enough to justify connecting them more closely with a coordinating conjunction. All three constructions are correct, but being able to identify the one that “flows” the best can be tough.

One of the less known uses of the semicolons is to separate events in a series. If the names of items in a list contain commas themselves, using commas to separate them becomes confusing, so we instead use semicolons to distinguish between different elements.

Take the following sentence, for example: “Her favorite colors, books and desserts are, respectively, red, blue and green; ‘Slaughterhouse-Five,’ ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Catch-22’; and pumpkin pie, carrot cake and cheesecake.” Because each element of the series is itself a list, we use semicolons to separate between these lists. Though the Associated Press Stylebook prohibits the use of the Oxford comma (the comma before the “and”), it mandates that the semicolon be included before the final item to avoid ambiguity.

The semicolon’s diverse and subtle uses make it one of my favorite punctuation marks, even if I can no longer place it randomly in inappropriate locations in my writing;