Answers to Questions About Semicolons

By Mark Nichol

Here are several questions from DailyWritingTips.com readers about use of prepositions, and my responses.

1. This sentence showcases my burning semicolon question: “That’s a great trick; best I’ve seen in ages.” I know the second clause in it contains no subject (or noun), at least explicitly. I’m therefore wondering whether this sentence can take a semicolon — perhaps because the subject in the second clause is implied — or instead deserves an em dash because there’s no second subject at all.

The sentence, as you wrote it, is correct — as you mention, the subject is implicit — but the formality of the semicolon is at odds with the informality of the omission of the subject, so I’d opt for a breezy em dash instead.

2. In the following sentence, should semicolons separate the three business segments?: “Its businesses are divided into three segments: Domestic Retail, Bakeries and Foodservice, and International.”

No, that’s a simple list with three simple elements. Even the addition of brief detail would not require semicolons, because the segments and their descriptions can be clearly delineated: “Domestic Retail, which includes merchandising through stores, Bakeries and Foodservice, which involves direct sales, and International, which deals with nondomestic buyers.” But when it would be obtrusive to repeat a structure such as “which (verb)” that clearly organizes the elements, use semicolons: “We invited our friends Jan and Dean; Fred and Wilma, the couple next door; and my brothers Greg, Peter, and Bobby and their wives.”

3. So, a comma in place of a semicolon is wrong? I once read a book on crafting sentences that mentioned that a semicolon is never accepted in American fiction and that a comma can always do the work. I’ve been going by this standard, and I like the economy and simplicity of the comma compared to the clumsy, Britishy semicolon. Do you think I’m wrong?

A semicolon does seem intrusively formal for transcribing speech — whether within dialogue in fiction or when quoting a speaker — but replacing it with a comma is erroneous, and the book’s advice is unfortunate. I recommend using an em dash or starting a new sentence instead.

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10 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Semicolons”

  • Cathy Speight

    The first example is incorrect. A semicolon has two functions.

    1) to separate two independent, linked clauses. The second part of the example is not an independent clause. A colon or em dash could be used.

    2) to separate a list, where each item may have a comma within it, eg:
    The attendees at the meeting were: John Smith, treasurer; Jill Brown, vice president.

  • Lucy McCarraher

    For once I have to disagree with you. In your second point above, I agree that the original example given by your questioner does not need a semi-colon to delineate the items in a simple list. But your own extension of this turns the simple list into a complex list by introducing internal punctuation (a comma) within each item. The items with sub-clauses therefore need to be separated by a semi-colon, partly because it’s correct grammar, but also because it becomes confusing to read with the plethora of commas and unclear where each item ends.
    I’m British, but I have no problem with semi-colons in fiction, or even in dialogue, if it clarifies how the sentence reads. I object to the semi-colon being called “clumsy”; it’s one of the most delicate and sophisticated punctuation marks when used correctly! 🙂

  • Steven

    In your comments for question number three, you state that replacing a semicolon with a period is erroneous. The question is about replacing a semicolon with a comma, not a period. Was the question transcribed incorrectly, or (what I believe) is the response meant to be a comma instead of a period? If it is not a mistake, does the answer still remain true?

  • A. Colin Flood

    Here be me yet again! Who would think that a grammar light-weight would weigh in for a second bout.

    Where an em dash creates a long separation between two thoughts, a semi-colon ABUTS them up against each other.

    CONTRASTING opposing thoughts in either fiction or non-fiction is tricky, but powerful when used correctly.

    Maybe you are not a movie fan. Maybe you have never seen a really good one (Sorry for you!) Creating two sentences, pausing with a comma or separating this information in two thoughts with an em dash WEAKENS the juxtaposition of the two statements. “I don’t like movies; I never saw one I liked.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    These are never hyphenated flyweight, bantamweight, lightweight, middleweight, heavyweight, superheavyweight. These are all terms from the sports of boxing, wrestling, and weighlifting, so if you are not familiar with those sports, the words could be mysterious to you. The best rule is to avoid unnecessary hyphens and dashes.
    Also, the words midway and halfway are not hyphenated.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The words “semicolon” and “nonfiction” are not hyphenated. These prefixes only require hyphens before proper nouns, such as in semi-Saharan and non-British.
    There has been a recent article in this series about the excess use of hyphens.
    Also see the word demisemiquaver, which is so often misspelled:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-second_note

  • Dale A. Wood

    The word “subclause” is not hyphenated, and the only common word with sub hyphenated onto it is “sub-Saharan”.
    Sorry about you Britons and your love for hyphens, but note that the word “demisemiquaver” is identified in dictionaries and encyclopedias as a British spelling!

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    Should this have been “comma” instead of “period”:

    ” … but replacing it with a period is erroneous.”

  • Festus Abiatar

    I’m a bit confused on the first question. Suppose the second clause (which, as you say, has an implied subject) was written “the best trick I have seen in ages”. Which is the subject: “the best trick” or “I”? I’d say the subject is “I” while “the best trick” is the object. If that is the case, why then are we saying the subject in this clause is implied?

  • Debbie Daniel

    I always thought when using a semicolon that the last item listed was separated by a comma. Would you look at this sentence and tell me if I needed another semicolon after 2012 or is the comma okay?

    We present programs every weekend: 54 times in 2009; 87 in 2010; 109 in 2011; 85 in 2012, and 77 concerts in our “#7 Sabbatical” year in 2013.

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