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The semicolon: half-right is all wrong

Something about the semicolon seems to trip people up. Maybe it’s the shape: the little round head and tail like a snake. I’m not sure.

At any rate, here are a few basic examples of when to use the semicolon.

Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses not joined with a conjunction, such as:

  • The house standing on the hill was my grandmother’s; my earliest childhood memories are there.

Semicolons are not used with simple coordinate conjunctions (and, or, but); however, a semicolon is used with a conjunctive adverb to join two independent clauses (like I just did and as in the example below).

  • The moon shined bright and full in the sky with no hint of a problem; nonetheless, Roger was still convinced he was a werewolf.

Use the semicolon to separate lists already including commas:

  • This week’s menu offered choices of tuna, salmon, and cod; peas, Brussels sprouts, and okra; rice, bulgur, and couscous.

Sometimes, a list with many commas can become confusing to read; for instance, when items in a list are described and commas are used in the description. Here’s what I mean:

  • I own four pets: a fat, lazy cat; a playful, energetic Labrador; a noisy, squawking parakeet; and a turtle.

In this example, if only commas were used, the whole list would jumble together, making it harder to read:

  • I own four pets: a fat, lazy cat, a playful, energetic Labrador, a noisy, squawking parakeet, and a turtle. (Huh?)

A common semicolon mistake:

My final thought is a common mistake I see. Semicolons are not used to introduce lists; colons are used to introduce lists. For example:

  • The party finally started with the arrival of Kennedy and her friends: Ginger, Rebecca, Alice, Shane, Jebediah, and Frank.

The colon introduces the names of Kennedy’s friends. A semicolon never introduces a list in this way.

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