Importance of Punctuation: Semicolons

Ah, the semicolon. It’s probably the most underrated of all the punctuation marks, and it also happens to be my absolute favorite.

Why?

I don’t know; I just love it.

But what I do know is that when I find a comma splice, it’s almost always because there should be a semicolon. It’s rare for the best fix to be adding a coordinating conjunction (FANBOY) or cutting the sentence into two, but students often don’t think of using the semicolon because they don’t know about it.

In fact, when I ask students about why they used a comma, most tell me it’s because they felt “a pause” and were taught that pauses are indications of a comma. The “pause” they felt was the end of a sentence, but because the ideas in the two sentences are related, they thought they were the same sentence.

Even worse than not knowing about semicolons, sometimes they’ve been scared away from it by professors or teachers that don’t want to bother with teaching them the proper ways to use it. Instead, they simply tell their students to never use it.

In fact, one of my professors in undergrad told our class to “not bother trying to use semicolons because you won’t get it right.”

No joke. A professor in a writing-enhanced course told us to not use the semicolon because we were going to do it wrong.

If he had given a brief lesson on how to use it, like he did with using possessive apostrophes, I wouldn’t be so upset. Instead, here I am, writing about semicolons because I love them and hate how little they’re actually used.

Honestly, the scariest thing about the semicolon is that it isn’t taught enough, and if it is mentioned, it’s mostly as a negative. The teacher either doesn’t understand them or doesn’t want to take the time to help students understand them.

In actuality, the semicolon isn’t so difficult. There are two times to use it:

  1. When writing out a list that has sub-categories.
    Example: I have visited New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Austin, Texas; and Paris, France.
  2. When combining two complete sentences that are closely related.
    Example: Dogs are pretty great; I still think cats are better.

The first instance is a time where semicolons are necessary; there is literally no other way to write a list like that because of how the commas are used. The second instance has multiple other ways of being written, but the semicolon is the best one.

Other ways to write the second sentence include: using “but” or “yet” with a comma, using an em-dash, or splitting the sentences.

Something else that’s cool about semicolons is Project Semicolon. You can find information about them here and here, and I highly recommend looking into them more if you or someone you know struggles with mental illness—especially if it’s depression.

Or, y’know, if you’re just interested in a really cool pro-mental health organization.

The idea to Project Semicolon is that your story isn’t over, just like a sentence with a semicolon isn’t really over, either. The organization’s goal is to help those suffering with depression know that there is more out there, and even if it feels like the end, there’s more to push forward for.

Next week, I’ll talk about the mark I see often forgotten: the apostrophe.

When do you like to use semicolons? What do you think of Project Semicolon? Let us know!

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