When one is an English teacher, one gets asked a lot of questions by all kinds of people about punctuation, and I get asked most often for clarification on comma use, but I get asked almost as frequently about the use of the semi-colon. It can be a baffling punctuation mark, but only because people don’t use it enough. Today, I’ll focus on one use of the semi-colon, with more to come in the near future.
You know how a semi-colon looks like a period floating above a comma? That’s what a semi-colon is used for! It works like a comma, but it’s also like a period, and chances are very good that in your own writing, you’ve often used a comma when a semi-colon was called for. Take a look at these examples:
Please don’t feed the animals, they’re on a special diet.
Give it to me, I’ll put it away.
I told her not to try it, however, she tried it anyway.
In each of these examples, the comma separates two complete sentences. If you put a period there and capitalized the next word, you’d be grammatically correct. However, there are many times when a period seems too final or too abrupt. We want the thought of the second sentence to be linked quickly and smoothly to the thought before. In times like these, we use a semi-colon.
Please don’t feed the animals; they’re on a special diet.
Give it to me; I’ll put it away.
I told her not to try it; however, she tried it anyway.
You could go your whole life without using a semi-colon and never be wrong! Please understand that the decision to use a semi-colon is almost always a STYLISTIC decision. A semi-colon is not like a question mark or period, which MUST be used in certain situations. In the examples above, you could also just use a period, and in some cases, you can leave the comma and just add a conjunction. These sentences are also grammatically correct and avoid use of the semi-colon:
Please don’t feed the animals. They’re on a special diet.
Give it to me, and I’ll put it away.
I told her not to try it, but she tried it anyway.
You absolutely cannot leave the sentences as they are originally written! Two complete sentences joined only by a comma is a HUGE no-no, yet it is one of the errors I most often see in others’ writing. Practice using it and you’ll find that there are times when it’s exactly the right punctuation for your needs!