Sem·i·co·lon: How & Why
Not quite a colon, and not just a period or a comma; this compound punctuation mark leaves many confused. If you’ve mastered it— congrats; if not— take heart, you are not alone.
Here’s a confession; I never used a semicolon before I started working with toth shop. It is, however, one of the beautifully elegant, successfully gritty things that drew me to Meg’s writing. And, if you find yourself on this website, it’s likely you’ve run into it already.
Do not be alarmed; do not be anxious. The semicolon is the best friend you never knew you needed. Pencils ready? Let’s learn everything to you need to know about this cheeky character.
How to use it.
Like dry shampoo near an open flame, use with caution. Seriously. A lot can go wrong; that’s probably why you haven’t used it before. With a little understanding, however, you’ll be wordsmithing your way to better, more intriguing copy in no time.
There are four correct uses for the semicolon.
In connecting related independent clauses.
Use a semicolon to connect two complete sentences that share the same overarching theme.
Correct: We need to discuss a new tagline; the old one is worn out.
Incorrect: Once the tagline is written; we’ll need new marketing material.
Notice in the second sentence, the first clause is not a complete sentence; therefore, a semicolon is incorrect. In this case, a comma should be used.
In place of a comma + conjunction.
Consider the semicolon shorthand for comma + conjunction. Let’s look at an example:
Our brand story is important, and we should tell it well.
Our brand story is important; we should tell it well.
This is the proper use of a semicolon. Each clause is independent— meaning, alone they are complete sentences. “Our brand story is important. We should tell it well.”
Now, let’s look at how this could go wrong— using the semicolon with a conjunction.
Incorrect: Our brand story is important; and we should tell it well.
I like to say: keep the drama for your mama and the conjunction for your comma. When using a semicolon, there is no need for a conjunction (and, but, or or). If the flow of your writing warrants a conjunction — and sometimes it does— use a comma. If, however, you’re looking to make concise observations and asking your reader to weigh things in balance, the semicolon is king.
Here’s the bottom line. When you’re writing, consider two clauses (usually sentences) at a time. If they share a similar thought and are independently complete sentences— perfect, use a semicolon and ditch the conjunction.
In the case of a conjunctive adverb.
Too many grammar words for you— me, too. Put simply, use a semicolon when linking two independent clauses with words like moreover, nevertheless, nonetheless, however, otherwise, therefore, then, also, finally, likewise, consequently, thus, etc.
This is probably the case where the semicolon is under-utilized; however, it is important to note, both clauses must be entirely independent. Both ideas must first be full and complete sentences; then, they can be joined by the semicolon and a conjunctive adverb. If not, then, a comma is used. (See what I did there?)
Let’s put that right pinky to use; otherwise, it will feel neglected. Here are a few other examples.
Brand storytelling is vital to your business; however, we see many companies neglect to do it well.
Establish your brand colors; moreover, infuse them into everything you release into the world— website, social media, business cards and letterhead.
In a complex or long series or list.
We’re all used to using a comma to separate items on a list. When you have a complex list of items or when items contain internal punctuation themselves, a semicolon is preferrable. It’s use here is to help readers divide the items just as you intend.
We have offices in Charlotte, North Carolina; San Antonio, Texas; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
We will soon be looking to revamp our marketing structure, which needs attention; social media platforms, to include Twitter; and brand strategies— that means website copy, too.
As you can see here, the semicolon is a force to reckoned with when it comes to complex list making. Wielding it well can make you wildly efficient. Afterall, who doesn’t love efficiency— and list making for that matter.
Why to use it.
Stylistically, the semicolon is warranted when you want to accentuate a pause. It should be read as heavier than a comma but lighter than the full stop of a period. The semicolon is striking enough to slow a reader down and heed them to consider the equality between the two sentences,
We love the semicolon— almost as much as the em dash. It is jaunty and gritty; it adds distinction and soul. But, perhaps the reason we love it the most: it really makes you think intentionally about how you are writing.
Look, our job is to help you write your story well— to make your unique brand come to life on a cold computer screen. But, what if we could make you a better writer in the process?
As an english major, that makes my heart sing. As a shop that loves to link english academia with business acumen, the semicolon is just the jumping off point. Where it takes you— well, we’ll leave that up to you.