3 Examples of How Semicolons Strengthen a Sentence

By Mark Nichol

Semicolons help clarify construction of sentences. Using the punctuation mark, employed as either a comma on steroids or a strategically flexible period, is usually just one of two or more possible solutions, but though it has a stuffy reputation and many writers are confused about its applications, it often is the best choice.

1. This issue is not cut and dried, it’s actually fairly complicated.

This sentence demonstrates the simplest and perhaps most common error related to the role of the semicolon: the failure to use it when when needed in the weak-period function. This pair of independent clauses must be separated by a semicolon: “This issue is not cut and dried; it’s actually fairly complicated.”

Replacing the comma with a dash or beginning a new sentence with it’s are alternative strategies, though the statement does not include a sharp break in thought (which a dash is intended to signal) and does not constitute two distinct ideas meriting separate sentences, so the semicolon is the most suitable solution.

2. For breakfast, he had eggs the way he liked them, over easy, bacon, locally raised, of course, toast, and coffee, which he always stirred exactly 10 times to blend in the milk.

This sentence requires semicolons to clearly organize a rambling list of words and phrases that constitute a menu: “For breakfast, he had eggs the way he liked them, over easy; bacon, locally raised, of course; toast; and coffee, which he always stirred exactly 10 times to blend in the milk.”

However, the preparation details can also be presented enclosed in parentheses, which renders semicolons unnecessary: “For breakfast, he had eggs the way he liked them (over easy), bacon (locally raised, of course), toast, and coffee (which he always stirred exactly 10 times to blend in the milk).” For consistency and to enhance sentence balance and rhythm, better yet, a corresponding detail about the toast should be inserted.

3. The act offers protection from lawsuits arising from monitoring information systems, including employee email, cyberthreat-related disclosures, and sharing of that information with other companies.

This sentence requires semicolons because even though “including employee email” seems obviously related to the preceding phrase, the sentence can also be read as if employee email, cyberthreats-related disclosures, and sharing of that information with other companies are being offered as examples of information systems. Use the stronger punctuation mark in such sentences so that the sentence organization is unambiguous: “The act offers protection from lawsuits arising from monitoring information systems, including employee email; cyberthreat-related disclosures; and sharing of that information with other companies.”

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


7 Responses to “3 Examples of How Semicolons Strengthen a Sentence”

  • Cynthia

    Because I do alot of plain language writing (which abhors the semi-colon), It’s nice to be reminded me of the positive results a semi-colon can bring. Just wanted to say though that I read sentence two as “….; of course, toast; and coffee….” Not as “…bacon, locally raised, of course; toast; and coffee….”

  • Michael W. Perry

    I confess. I hate semicolons. I can’t help myself. With the exception of complex, multi-level lists, I find little use for them.

    For me, semicolons in their role as “weak periods” have little use. I’d rather push what I’m saying back to the more ordinary break of a period or forward to the more aggressive break of an M-dash.

    Think of the flow of sentences as being like driving down a highway. At one extreme, keeping you and I from speeding, is a speed limit sign. That’s the ordinary period. We see so many of them, they’re almost invisible. The M-dash is at the opposite extreme. It changes the flow of traffic like a cop standing beside it car holding a radar gun. He gets your immediate attention. He makes everyone brake their thoughts.

    In such a world, the semicolon is like a speed bump being placed in a road. It’s not as ordinary as a sign (period). It’s not as aggressive as a cop (M-dash). It’s simply an irritatingly half-way. It forces readers to slow down, but often without sufficent reason. Typically, it’s a cheap way to tack two sentences together without having the guts to use a period. Yes, it means the two sentences are connected in some way. But that’s true of sentences joined by periods too. Why bother with this semicolon?

  • Agua Caliente

    “…the guts to use a period”?
    I can think of a good number of quick and dirty responses to that, but I’ll just comment that I have never before seen the use of punctuation associated with one’s courage. Slinking off for the weekend now…

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Michael Perry: Do show the guts and courage to complete one’s sentences, and then use a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. The is not need to “blend” sentences together by weaseling around. Also, many times writers use a semicolon (vaguely), rather than pinning the meaning down with “, and”, “, or”, or “, but” (comma “and”, etc.). This is a sign of sheer lazy thinking by people who have not grasped by differences between {and, or, but}, not even in math courses, much less in English class.
    Also, the overuse of semicolons by Americans, Canadians, Australians, etc., is a sure sign of writers trying to imitate British English. If you live in “the colonies” (such as in North America), be proud of your own language and don’t try to be British!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Furthermore, single-digit numbers should not be used in titles and especially not at the beginnings of sentences. Some proper uses are shown in these examples:
    The Seven Samurai
    The Three Musketeers
    2001: A Space Odyssey
    3001: Final Odyssey
    The Four Horsemen
    Seven Days in May
    The Magnificent Seven
    Two stood against many….
    Eight Men Out

    I believe that Maeve Maddox has published articles on the proper usages in the case of single-digit numbers in English, including “zero”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Corrected and clarified:
    This issue is not cut and dried, but rather it is actually complicated. (or “more complex than that”)

  • Artie

    Maybe I’m just weird, but I find semicolons unsightly and inelegant. I will do almost anything to avoid using such a plug-ugly piece of punctuation.

Leave a comment: