Semicolons Do Two Things
- On May 22, 2018
I’m pretty sure when I need a comma; I’m not so sure about a semicolon. That’s what Keith Hernandez told The New York Times about his struggles with punctuation.
The baseball star turned memoirist and social media maven is not alone. In my workshops, I often spend a lot of time clarifying when to use semicolons (and commas and dashes, too). I’m happy to say the semicolon is relatively easy to explain because, unlike the other two, it does only two things. And Hernandez’s confession, as transcribed by the reporter, illustrates one of them.
You use a semicolon when you’re separating two independent clauses—complete thoughts that could be standalone sentences. In the Hernandez example, I’m pretty sure when I need a comma and I’m not so sure about a semicolon each could be their own sentences, but they’re separated by a semicolon, not a period, because they’re closely related thoughts. The semicolon is acting like a yellow light—a pause—as opposed to the red light, full-on stop of a period.
You also use a semicolon to separate items in a list when the items listed contain their own internal commas. Take a look at this example from last week’s palace intrigue about who would walk Meghan Markle down the aisle: Guesses on Twitter included her mother, Doria Ragland, a yoga instructor and social worker; and Prince Charles, her future father-in-law.
Unless you’ve been in an isolation tank since Saturday, you know how that turned out…