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Pens (if you’re writing), fingers (if you’re typing or using a tablet) or quills (if you’re from the 16th Century) at the ready: in this edition of our grammar collection, we’ll be dissecting the use of the semicolon in writing.
What is a semicolon?
A semicolon looks like a regular colon, except there’s a comma in place of the lower dot. You’ll find it on the same button as the colon on your keyboard – in fact, it’s the character that appears automatically when you press the key.
Using the semicolon
You’ll use a semicolon to ‘outrank’ a comma in a sentence. For example, in the following statement, the inclusion of the semicolon puts more emphasis on the break that would normally be denoted by a comma:
By day, he was just a normal man called Doctor Jekyll; but, by night, he was an evil and dangerous man known as Mr Hyde.
Although the example sentence could have been split by a comma, the use of the semicolon makes the two statements in the single sentence much more distinct. It also makes sense conversationally, as you’d normally join these two sentences together when speaking. Of course, you could just split the two sentences and state them separately – but the joined statements look much better, don’t they?
A useful tool
The semicolon also works well when you’re tempted to use a full stop before the word ‘and’ – but your inner grammar dictator tells you not to!
Caroline walked into the office, carrying the cake but tripped as she did so; and, with a splatter, she landed face-first in the gooey mess of what had once been a Victoria sponge.
Using the semicolon in this way keeps the flow and continuity of statement, but doesn’t leave you in an uncompromising grammatical position!
Comma or semicolon?
It’s probably best to use a comma in certain situations. If you’re using conjugations like ‘and’, ‘or’ and ‘but’ two join two statements in one sentence, you should precede them with a comma.
Some people will tell you to just use a comma instead of a semicolon – they’ll tell you it’s an old-fashioned way of breaking up a sentence. Still, if you want to get a grammatical one-over on them, throw in a semicolon and show them how it’s done.
So there you have it – the simple semicolon. Outdated? Maybe. Useful? Absolutely.