For plain-English advocates who prefer short sentences, semicolons as a joining device are a no-no; but in the right document, for the right audience, they can greatly improve long sentences and bring variety to your writing style. At Hit Send we do see some pretty odd sentences with semicolons, however, so here are some tips for perfect, beautiful, spectacular semicolon use.

1. Connecting independent clauses

Use semicolons to connect two closely related independent clauses.

A good example:

The directors met on Thursday at 5.00 pm; after an hour they called the CEO in to join them.

Note, an independent clause can stand on its own; this is because it has a subject and a verb, such as ‘the directors’ and ‘met’, and ‘they’ and ‘called’ in the example above.

However, a common error I see is something like the following sentence, which is incorrect because the clause after the semicolon is not independent. (I think you will agree it could not stand alone?)

A poor example:

The CEO looked pretty shaken when he emerged; with his resignation being considered by the directors.

Another good example:

Her PA is taking maternity leave in September when the new product is being launched; we will need to employ a temp.

2. Separating long list items

Semicolons can play a really useful job in lists where each item comprises more than a word or two.

A good example:

We are expecting the following visitors during the year: three directors in February; four buyers from Victoria in April; a large group of journalists during the winter; and another group of buyers in September.

And when there is other punctuation, such as a comma, within list items, the semicolons help a lot.

A really good example:

A few visitors will attend from overseas: Mr Salim from Yogyakarta, Indonesia; his business partner from Guangxi, China; and the agents from Langkawi Island, Malaysia.

Notice that it’s correct to use a semicolon before the final list item (don’t revert to a comma, which we frequently see happen).

Semicolons have useful life in them yet.



At Hit Send we love punctuation. If you’d like to make a comment or read more tips, join us on Facebook.