Dina Friedman's Monthly Writing Advice

Vol. 1 # 7, January 2002 - Semicolon Secrets

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Dear Dina,

Just what is a semicolon anyway?

Signed,
Perplexed by Punctuation

Dear Perplexed,

Here's a secret. You can get through life and never have to use a semicolon. But if you want to add to your grammatical toolbox, here's how to use a semicolon correctly:

A semicolon links two closely related independent clauses. For example,

Slowly, we pried open the door; inside, we found that the house had been ransacked.

Using a semicolon here shows balance or equal weight between the two clauses. This is a grammatical choice. We could easily write the above sentence with either a comma and coordinating conjunction, or as two separate sentences, but in each case the nuance is slightly different. We could say

Slowly, we pried open the door, and inside, the house had been ransacked.

or

Slowly, we pried open the door. Inside, the house had been ransacked.

In the first of these two sentences, connecting the two clauses with "and" cuts down on the pause between the two actions, leaving the reader to skim over the first action and go right to the rest of the sentence. In the second of these options, the period between the two sentences affords an even more dramatic pause. The semi-colon option falls in between these two; the emphasis is on balance and connection with enough pause to make the reader stop at the first action before going on to the second.

There is only one other grammatical place to use a semi colon: you can substitute it for the serial comma when the items in the series are already punctuated by commas. For example,

We walked down the long, dusty street; pried open the creaky door, which hadn't been open in years; took a careful survey of the room and screamed.

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Best,
Dina

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Dina Friedman, M.S.W., has worked with individuals and groups on issues for thirteen years. A published fiction writer, poet, playwright, and journalist and winner of several awards and honors, she coordinates academic writing workshops for Mount Holyoke College. She has taught rhetoric, English Comp, and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Holyoke Community College, and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

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