3 Examples of Incorrect Use of Semicolons

By Mark Nichol

In each of the following sentences, semicolons are incorrectly employed. Discussion following each example explains why the use of one or more semicolons is an error, and revisions demonstrate proper punctuation.

1. The lack of specificity allows flexibility; but the lack of clarity also makes certification less certain.

This sentence consists of two independent clauses. Two strategies for dividing a pair of such clauses are separating them with a semicolon and separating them with a conjunction. This sentence redundantly applies both methods, so employ one or the other (preferably, the simpler solution of signaling the transition with a conjunction): “The lack of specificity allows flexibility, but the lack of clarity also makes certification less certain.” (But if one uses a conjunctive adverb such as however or nonetheless in place of the conjunction, a comma must follow that word, and a semicolon should precede it: “The lack of specificity allows flexibility; however, the lack of clarity also makes certification less certain.”)

2. The film’s inane plotting; randomly gratuitous violence; utter sexlessness; and questionable grasp of grown-up behavior suggest that the true author might have been an eight-year-old boy.

Semicolons can serve as supercommas, dividing a series of equivalent sentence elements such as items in a list when at least of one of them is already divided by commas, necessitating a more robust punctuation mark to delineate the larger divisions from the smaller ones. This sentence errs in two ways. First, the lack of subdivisions means that semicolons need not supplant commas. Second, using semicolons implies that the phrase beginning with suggest applies only to the final characteristic in question. For those reasons, use only commas: “The film’s inane plotting, randomly gratuitous violence, utter sexlessness, and questionable grasp of grown-up behavior suggest that the true author might have been an eight-year-old boy.”

3. The subcontractors were fined for allegedly failing to ensure that the formwork and shoring were designed to safely withstand all intended loads; failing to have calculations and drawings approved by a civil engineer; and failing to ensure the shoring supports were erected on a stable base.

Even when a list consists of a series of extended phrases rather than several sets of just a few words each, mere commas suffice to separate the elements if they do not themselves include punctuation: “The subcontractors were fined for allegedly failing to ensure that the formwork and shoring were designed to safely withstand all intended loads, failing to have calculations and drawings approved by a civil engineer, and failing to ensure the shoring supports were erected on a stable base.”


1 Response to “3 Examples of Incorrect Use of Semicolons”

  • Greg Northover

    Hello DWT
    What of the shiboleth of not using a comma before “and”. Comment please? Your example folows:
    “The film’s inane plotting, randomly gratuitous violence, utter sexlessness, and questionable grasp of grown-up behavior suggest that the true author might have been an eight-year-old boy.”

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