Mira Schor. Semi Colon in Flesh, 1993.

My intention was to cover the comma in a series of posts (no pun intended) but this morning I had an adventure when Mr. Bessie, my Jack Russell terrier, decided to run off and visit one of the many B&Bs here at the beach. I had a two hour scare, but all’s well that ends well. A kind stranger found him and brought the Mr. B. to the police station. Now he’s back at home, snoozing under the bed covers.

So now that the dog is safe and sound, I figured I would discuss an equally safe form of punctuation that for some reason many people fear: the semi-colon (okay, the photo is a little scary).

According to Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage:

Semi-colons (;) are sometimes used instead of full stops, in cases where sentences are grammatically independent but the meaning is closely connected. Semi-colons are nearly as common as full stops or commas.

Some people work best in the mornings; others do better in the evenings.

It is a fine idea; let us hope that it is going to work. 

Commas in these examples wouldn’t work (and we know why, right?)

We can also use semi-colons to separate items in list, particularly when they’re complex:

You may use the sports facilities on condition that your subscription is regularly; that you arrange for all necessary cleaning to be carried out; that you undertake to make good any damage; …

But when do you avoid the semi-colon? In Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference, she provides these guidelines:

Do not use a semi-colon in the following situations.

  • Between a subordinate clause and the rest of the sentence
    • Unless you brush your teeth within ten of fifteen minutes after eating,brushing does almost no good
  • Between an appositive and the word it refers to
    • The scientists were fascinated by the species Argyroneta acquatica, a spider that lives underwater.
  • To introduce a list
    • Some of my favorite film stars have home pages on the Web: Uma Thurman, Billy Bob Thornton, and Halle Berry.
  • Between independent clauses joined by and, but, or, nor, for, so, or yet.
    • Five of the applicants had worked with spreadsheets, but only one was familiar with database management.

Hacker writes there are exceptions. The first one is if at least one of the independent clauses contains internal punctuation, you may use a semi-colon even though a clauses are joined with a coordinating conjunction. For example:

As a vehicle [the model T] was hard-working, commonplace, and heroic; it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the person who rode it. —E.B. White.

Another example of when to use a semi-colon is to emphasize a sharp contrast or a firm distinction between clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction:

We hate some persons because we do not them well; and we will not know them because we hate them, —Charles Caleb Colton.

See, nothing scary about it at all. It’s the comma that’s frightening.