The Semicolon

The semicolon is a punctuation mark that closely resembles the comma. If you examine its form, you will see that it is made up of a period and a comma, which suggests that it is intended to be stronger than a comma, but not as final as a period. If you think of it as a strong comma, you will be less likely to use it in the wrong place. It has four general uses:

  1. It joins independent clauses when the comma-conjunction joiner is stylistically weaker:
    1. Good: Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.
    2. Better: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  2. It separates a statement from a question or a needed shift in mood:
    1. Stop that nonsense; or should I tell your mother?
    2. Notice there are two shifts in that sentence–a shift from the imperative mood to the indicative, and a shift from a statement to a question. Generally speaking, you would want to avoid such shifts within a sentence, but again style comes into play. If you do it intentionally and for a valid reason–for example, to render realistic dialogue–you can employ shifts in your writing, and use punctuation to keep your meaning clear.
  3. The semicolon separates series and clauses that contain internal punctuation (usually commas):
    1. Anyone interested in man’s past might major in history, the study of his recent past; archeology, the study of his ancient past; or anthropology, the study of his evolutionary development.
  4. When the second clause of a compound sentence is introduced by a conjunctive adverb, a semicolon separates the clauses (remember that a comma follows the conjunctive adverb in this case):
    1. I believe he can do the work; otherwise, I would not have hired him.
    2. Smithers has the qualifications for the job; nevertheless, he lacks the experience.

This article was taken from the course Writing the Memoir 101. Click here to register for the course now!

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