To Beat a Grammarian: Semicolons

To Beat a Grammarian: Semicolons


These are probably the least understood of punctuation marks. I see students misuse it, and well-known authors throw it about with little regard. It’s a freak in its own freak show, really, and like commas, a little knowledge can help out discerning what situations to use it in. Above all though, less is better.

1) Transition Words

If you recall from before what FANBOYS are (Commas: Back to Basics), in many texts, it is improper to use them at the beginning of sentences. To avoid this, writers use transition words, such as however, also, thus, and otherwise. These words function the same as their respective counterparts—but, and, so, and or. Like this:

I wanted to see the movie, but I had no time.

Normally said as:

I wanted to see the movie. However, I had no time.

This can be change to:

I wanted to see the move; however, I had not time.

What’s key here is that FANBOYS are never linked to a semicolon, only transitions words are. To understand this more, let’s look at the next point.

2) Tying two related ideas together

This is essentially what transition words represent; however, they needn’t always be present. If the connection can be made without the necessary wordage, then all the better. See below. 

Meeting my sister is a hassle; she never stops yelling.


I went on the blind date, meeting him at a local coffee shop; it was a disaster.

Now, in both of these incidences, a semicolon can be used to either stress the relationship between the two independent clauses or to tie them together to bypass the pause linked to a period or comma that would take its place.

Nonetheless, the difficulty arises when many authors overuse it. When every paragraph has one, two, or more, the effect is belittled. The best would be to show emphasis, which like raising your voice to stress something important, if done all the time, well, you’re just yelling and nothing comes off particularly different.


3) Super Comma

This one is a little bit easier. In many situations, when commas abound, then we needed to discern the difference between one comma usage and another. Here we find the most functional usage of the semicolon.

I went to see Paul in Chicago, Illinois; Matt in New York City, New York; and Tom in jail.


Some kiss girls; others, boys.

As can be seen in the top example, the super comma—cough!—I mean semicolon acts as a comma when too many commas are already present. The second is when a similar sentence structure is repeated with the verbs cut out as we often do in speech by raising our eyebrows or dramatically pausing.

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