The semicolon is one of the most useful punctuation marks if employed correctly. For some, the mark is intimidating, appearing on the page like a mutant offspring of a comma and a colon. For others, notably Kurt Vonnegut, the punctuation mark is actually offensive. In fact, in his autobiography A Man Without a Country he wrote, “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Though I’m usually religious about Kurt Vonnegut’s wise-isms, I have to disagree in this case. The semicolon, when used appropriately and in moderation, can make your writing much more readable. “When is it appropriate to use a semicolon, intern?” you ask.
Well, good reader, semicolons are best employed in two main ways. The first: to separate two related independent clauses. Instead of creating a compound sentence using coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, yet, so, nor), you can join sentences with our little mutant friend.
Things to keep in mind: when using a semicolon in this manner, make sure the clauses on either side can stand independently as sentences. (I know, I repeat myself, having already mentioned “two related independent clauses,” but this is something people mess up, and by people, I mean me, throughout an entire first draft for my freshman writing seminar, and let me assure you, I have never been so grammatically humbled as I was after that first draft.)
Things were going smoothly; all the hiccups from earlier in the day seemed to have worked themselves out.
The second: to separate items in a list when one or more items in said list use a comma.
There’s not much to say on this matter that isn’t better explained by showing, so here’s an example.
I sent my little brother to the store to pick up curling ribbon; red, orange and green wrapping paper; Scotch tape; and tissue paper.
“Red, orange and green wrapping paper” was one item on the list but had commas within it, making it confusing to separate it from other items using more commas. Using semicolons in this instance eliminates such confusion.
That’s it. Don’t overuse it (more than once on a page is probably excessive), but don’t shy away from it because it’s mutant looking! Think of all the joy we’d have missed if we were scared of mutants (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The X-Men, Spiderman… the list goes on), and try out the semicolon in your next piece of writing!