Semicolons–the Deeply Misunderstood Punctuation Mark

Semicolons–the Deeply Misunderstood Punctuation Mark

Possibly one of the most common punctuation problems involves the poor semicolon.  Neither a full colon nor a fancy comma, this little character consistently baffles its users.  So what are we supposed to do with it?  And more importantly, what should we NOT do with it?

According to experts, the semicolon serves two purposes.  The first is to connect two sentences with closely related topics:

Wombats are marsupials.  They are native to Australia.

Wombats are marsupials; they are native to Australia.

If you decide to join the two sentences using a conjunction, you need to remove the semicolon and insert a comma instead:

Wombats are marsupials, and they are native to Australia.

You should never try to join two sentences on unrelated topics using a semicolon (or anything else, for that matter).

WRONG  —  Wombats are marsupials; salt-water crocodiles are native to Australia.

More confusing are situations where you use semicolons to separate items in a list.  This is only correct when the items themselves are complicated enough to warrant commas and, therefore, likely to confuse the reader.

Winners of the dog show included a cocker spaniel with black, white, and tan markings; a miniature dachshund with a long coat in black, tan, and merle colors; and a greyhound who was mostly white, but had brindled spots in tan, grey, and beige.

Never us semicolons to separate short, uncomplicated lists.

WRONG — Each of the dogs was black; white; and tan.

For more help with semicolons, and other writerly issues, check out Purdue’s Online Writing Lab:  They also have helpful videos on their You Tube channel

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