• Emma Lawson

Copyedit clinic: How to use semi-colons to improve your writing

We’ve all had to deal with the dreaded semi at some point. Or maybe you’ve just avoided it? Although there are rules to grammar and punctuation, there is an art to editing text. In fiction writing especially there aren’t so many

hard and fast rules, and some authors choose to stay well clear of the semi-colon – either separating sentences altogether with a full point or using commas. That is a preference. However, there is a place for this misunderstood little piece of punctuation, and this blog post will show you how can use it to clarify meaning and sharpen your writing.

Here’s a short sample paragraph to work with:

Liz and Dave ate out every weekend together. It was their routine, Liz made sure of it. Of course, there were the awkward silences and the palpable tension born of thirty years of marriage riven with resentment, but it was preferable to staying within the echoey walls of their home, emptied of children and commotion since they’d all gone their own way. Liz replaced the clamour of a family home at dinner time with the background sound of strangers. Liz thrived off this background noise. Dave would have happily eaten in his study, as he did every weekday night, Liz needed to eat dinner in the anonymous company of strangers.

The pitfalls of not using a semi-colon

What’s wrong with this paragraph? There are a few issues here, but with respect to semi-colons, there is one sentence that is glaringly wrong, and it’s snuck in at the end of the paragraph. The pitfall, then, of not using a semi-colon in this sentence is that we end up with a comma splice, whereby a comma is incorrectly used to divide clauses.

❌ ‘Dave would have happily eaten in his study, as he did every weekday night, Liz needed to eat dinner in the anonymous company of strangers.’

What could we do to correct this?

One option is to separate these clauses with a full point:

‘Dave would have happily eaten in his study, as he did every weekday night. Liz needed to eat dinner in the anonymous company of strangers.’

The problem with this is that the intimate connection between the two clauses is lost. It’s not coincidental that Liz needs to eat dinner in the pub. It’s because her marriage is shaky, as evidenced by Dave avoiding her during the week, that she feels the need to get out of their empty home and keep up the pretence of a life together.

Another option is to rephrase the sentence:

‘Whereas Dave would have happily eaten his dinner in the study, as he did every weekday night, Liz needed to eat dinner in the company of strangers.’

Or this:

‘Dave would have happily eaten his dinner in the study, as he did every weekday night, but Liz needed to eat dinner in the company of strangers.’

Again, while there is nothing technically incorrect with these ways of phrasing the sentence, they don’t carry quite the same weight in terms of meaning and connection as a semi-colon would; it just highlights the difference in their choices.

The advantage of using a semi-colon

❌ ‘Dave would have happily eaten in his study, as he did every weekday night, Liz needed to eat dinner in the anonymous company of strangers.’

✅ ‘Dave would have happily eaten in his study, as he did every weekday night; Liz needed to eat dinner in the anonymous company of strangers.’

Notice that the two clauses can stand independently if separated by a full point. The use of a semi-colon here is correct and conveys the intimate connection between 1) their differing choices throughout the week and 2) why Liz wants to eat out together at the weekend. Furthermore, a semi-colon helps to make the sentence sound more choppy and abrupt – a good choice when writing about a strained relationship.

The above was an example of how a semi-colon can be a good choice in your punctuation toolkit. However, there are times when a semi-colon has to be used, and that is when certain connecting words require a preceding semi-colon.

  • however

  • therefore

  • thus

  • consequently

  • nevertheless

  • meanwhile

E.g. ‘The rift valley was thought to be the cradle of humanity; however, we now know this is not necessarily the case because other plausible theories have been put forth.’

‘The global coronavirus pandemic refused to be confined to its epicentre; consequently, governments across the globe imposed strict lockdowns.’

‘She was exhausted; nevertheless, she went to visit her mum on Mother’s Day as usual.’

Colons vs semi-colons

The semi-colon is often overshadowed by its neighbour: the colon. A colon is used when one clause explains or expands upon another.

E.g. ‘he booked an appointment at the salon as soon as it opened: it was the only way to address his unruly mop of hair.'

‘We decided not to buy the house in Mayfair: we couldn’t afford it.’

‘The semi-colon marks a separation that is stronger than a comma but less strong than a full point.’ New Hart’s Rules, The Oxford Style Guide.

Going back to our sample sentence:

❌ ‘Dave would have happily eaten in his study, as he did every weekday night: Liz needed to eat dinner in the anonymous company of strangers.’

This is incorrect because Liz eating dinner with Dave in the pub at the weekend isn’t explaining Dave’s choice to eat his dinner in the study during the week. However, a semi-colon explains why because Dave chooses to eat alone during the week, Liz feels the need to create a façade of happy marriage by eating out together over the weekend.

Other uses for semi-colons

When faced with an unwieldy list that needs to be written out in full as opposed to broken up into a bulleted list, semi-colons can be used to good effect compared to their more common counterpart, the comma. Semi-colons order the various components of a list:

‘She remembered that they’d had a glorious time together during her sabbatical in Costa Rica; that they’d sat on the beach and had been bathed in white lunar light; that they’d relished the taste of fresh fish from the boats returning from their early morning catch; all the bright, vibrant colours of the street festivals and how they had blurred into a manic swirl of history and culture.’

What are your thoughts on the semi-colon? Can you see how they can work not only to clarify your sentences grammatically, but also to maximise a particular effect in the sound and flow of prose?

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References:

Swan, M. (2016) Practical English Usage, 4th edn. Oxford: OUP

Waddingham, A. (2014), New Hart’s Rules, The Oxford Style Guide, 2nd edn. Oxford: OUP


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