Self-Editing Tip #3: Semicolon, the Mouth Breather

The ever-dreaded semicolon, I believe, is one of the English language’s most misunderstood and misused facets of punctuation. Awkward, yes. Frustrating, yes. And I called it the “Mouth Breather” because no matter what I do (ignore it or flatter it with use), it’s always there lurking behind me, distracting me with hot, stinky breath on the back of my neck. This is how I feel about the semicolon, and I know that my sentiments are shared somewhere among the writing community.

But a semicolon has its wonderful uses, can break up a paragraph, combine two short and tense sentences without chopping up the flow, and lend enjoyment to a wordy writing style while making sure we, as the reader, do not get lost. A client of mine was particularly fond of the semicolon, perhaps a bit overly so, but I felt that it would be helpful for him, and good practice for me, to describe some of the guidelines I live by when I decide to give the semicolon another chance. The following points are those I included in my notes, and I realized that there might be some of you out there, turned off by the semicolon, who might benefit from an explanation of how to see past the Mouth Breather in all its ugliness.

  • A semicolon can always be used to link two sentences that are related instead of writing two separate sentences that feel short and abrupt. For example: ‘I always loved the water; the clear coolness of it filled me with peace.’ As opposed to, ‘I always loved the water. The clear coolness of it filled me with peace.’ 
  • A semicolon is not to be used when linking two phrases with a conjunction (and, but, or, which). Example: ‘The concert was fun, but I was too tired.’ I see this a lot, where a semicolon is used instead of a comma to connect two phrases. A good rule of thumb is that if you have a sentence that uses ‘and’ after a comma, you can delete ‘and’ and use a semicolon instead. But if you keep the word ‘and’, a semicolon would be misused.
  • Semicolons can also be used in a series or list of things, where each item on the list has multiple parts. In this instance, a semicolon is used to avoid confusion around the separate items on a list. Example: ‘He wondered whether or not he should call her, which might result in him throwing his phone again in anger; go to her house, which only made him think of hitting her; or retreat to the bar to drown his frustration there.’
  • There really is no strict rule for using m-dashes; they tend to be used according to each writer’s preferences. However, the overuse of m-dashes, and use of them when a simple comma (or semicolon even) would suffice, gets awfully distracting, and I think detracts from the power that can be conveyed by the occasional use of an m-dash. An m-dash is a good bet to use instead of a semicolon when an ‘epiphany’ appears in the characters’ thoughts, or an incomplete phrase follows a complete sentence. Example: ‘He was so excited to get started – screw the rules!’ 

These are the major issues around the dear semicolon, though I know the tricks held up its sleeve may be too numerous to count. If anyone has a more specific question on their own difficulties with using this fickle punctuation, please leave a comment and let me know! There’s a chance we can figure it out together.

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