by Harriet Castor
Many people (including professional writers!) are unsure about when it’s correct to use a semi-colon (or, as you’ll sometimes see it written, a semicolon). You can happily get through the whole of your life without ever using a semi-colon. They are not essential pieces of punctuation. However, they can be handy, so here’s how to use them.
Semi-colons are used to join two whole sentences together when the meaning of
those two sentences is closely related. The key is to remember that there must be a whole sentence on each side of the semi-colon.
Here’s an example:
I hate rice pudding; dairy products don’t agree with me.*
Note that the words on each side of the semi-colon could work as a complete sentence on their own. This means we could have used a full stop instead.
I hate rice pudding. Dairy products don’t agree with me.
Another alternative would have been to use a conjunction — a joining word — to link the two sentences.
I hate rice pudding because dairy products don’t agree with me.
All these versions are correct.
What is not correct is to use a semi-colon when there is a whole sentence on only one side of it, and not the other. Here’s an example:
I hate rice pudding; all sloppy and lumpy.
This is not correct, because the words ‘all sloppy and lumpy’ do not work as a whole sentence on their own.
You can also use semi-colons to separate items in a complex and detailed list, but I will explain how that works in next week’s tip.
*This example is taken from an exercise for practising using the semi-colon in the ‘Improve Your Writing’ section of the Bristol University website. It’s a very useful exercise, and it lets you check your answers. You can find it here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/exercises/grammar/grammar_tutorial/page_44.htm
For a confidential one-to-one session with me to work on your writing skills, email Harriet.Castor@uwe.ac.uk.
I’m at Frenchay on Wednesdays and St Matthias on Thursdays.