The Semicolon Is a Yellow Light
- On April 13, 2021
I’m pretty sure when I need a comma; I’m not so sure about a semicolon.
I hear that a lot.
The semicolon is easy to explain because it does two specific things (unlike the comma whose use is wide and varied and can sometimes be subjective). The first thing the semicolon does is separate independent clauses—complete thoughts that could be standalone sentences, just like the example at the top of the post.
In this case, you’re using the semicolon to tell the reader to pause, not stop as they would at a period. Consider it a yellow light, and use it when the otherwise would-be sentences are closely related in thought.
The other thing the semicolon does is separate items in a list when the items listed contain their own internal commas. I like this example from a few years back 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.
A few final notes: Semicolons do not introduce lists of things; that’s the domain of colons. Nor are they substitutes for commas. The following sentence features a typical mistake: As the pace of vaccinations increase; some people still wonder how quickly life will return to normal.
That semicolon should be a comma, and I hope, for the sake of humanity, the answer for all those wondering is “Soon!”