I went to a writing club at a local library two nights ago. I thought it’d be fun for my daughters. One has a 16,000 page manuscript I don’t have time to edit; the other is working on a graphic novel. I listened to a soft spoken mother read aloud her essay on love. It’s a submission for a contest offered by Real Simple magazine. Next was an older gentleman who shared his piece about an unhappy state employee who has to administer tests to “odious high school students.” Both essays were very enjoyable.
When I opened my mouth to help the older gentleman with a run-on sentence by correcting it with a semi-colon, I was shocked at his response. He originally had placed a semi-colon in the exact spot I suggested, but had taken it out because he was afraid of someone else in the class who previously had suggested he was overusing this punctuation.
On closer review, this gentleman had overused the semi-colon. But when the person who had accused him of overuse began to speak about its proper use, that’s when I realized how many people are unsure of its proper use. So here it is in a nutshell:
Use a semi-colon when you have two independent clauses that are of a related thought. These clauses are not joined by conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor, yet, so). Example:
She can’t stop shaking; she feels she’s going to die.
Sarah looked in the driveway; she saw the car below.
This man had misunderstood semi-colon usage; he felt it would provide a more dramatic pause. Nope. The comma is and always will be there for dramatic pause. The semi-colon is a linker of clauses; it’s not intended for pausing at all.
Another use for a semi-colon is for listing things set off by commas in a series. Example:
Tonight’s speakers include: Jo Jo Dipstick, comedian; Rita Whatshername, introvert; and Laura Lovable, flirt.
See? No pauses there.
What not to do with a semi-colon:
Don’t link an independent clause with a dependent clause with a semi-colon. Example:
When he came into the room; blood was all over the floor. (incorrect)
Instead, put a comma there. Yes, you want a dramatic pause here: When he came into the room, blood was all over the floor. (correct)
I think the reason semi-colons are so improperly used is because nobody seems to recognize the simple rules that apply to them. Hopefully, this has helped you to know a semi-colon’s true purpose in a sentence.