nobody's favourite punctuation
This time out, Dave’s taking a look at a misunderstood part of the copywriter’s toolbox, and never quite manages to stick with a single comparison.
The semicolon is a strange, arcane beast, trapped in a cursed half-life between the planes of pause and period.
But in many ways it’s like the offside rule of punctuation.
In essence, you get the general vibe of how it’s supposed to be used, and you definitely have Some Thoughts when you see it used incorrectly, but when you look up the rules* it’s never actually quite what you think**.
It’s not a comma, it’s not a full stop, and it can often feel like an unnecessary luxury purchase from the punctuation store.
And frankly, in quite a lot of cases you can make a pretty convincing argument for leaving it on the shelf.
Unless you’re very sure how to use it effectively, it can risk coming across a little “Oooh, look at the punctuation I know!” and distract from the actual message.
(And sometimes you might want the “Look how smart I am” feeling. It’s all about context.)
When used properly there’s nothing quite like it.
Before I get lost trying to link the confusing fantasy->football->shopping shift in that opening, we should probably look at how you actually deploy it.
Let’s stick together
The semicolon ties together two closely related clauses that, if need be, could stand on their own. A bit like fraternal twins — they’re more linked than regular siblings, but less so than identical twins. The semicolon’s job here is to enhance the link between the two parts. It’s matching jumpers.
Maybe a more helpful comparison can come from looking at its appearance. Think of a semicolon as a slightly torn staple hole.
You have two pages and they’re standalone items, each perfectly capable of being put to better use as a paper aeroplane. Add a staple and suddenly their contents are connected, both in the mind of the reader and, well, physically… but with just enough give that they could come back apart.
To politely liberate from Noah Lukeman’s excellent The Art of Punctuation (recommended reading for those of you who also have quiet Saturday nights), we have this example:
‘”He ran with his shirt over his head. He had forgotten his umbrella once again.”
Grammatically, the above is correct. Yet these two thoughts are so closely linked that they don’t feel quite right standing on their own. Yet a comma won’t do, since they are each complete sentences:
“He ran with his shirt over his head, he had forgotten his umbrella once again.”
Thus we need the semicolon:
“He ran with his shirt over his head; he had forgotten his umbrella once again.”‘
It’s not a punctuation mark that should chase the spotlight. It can be used in a steady, reliable supporting role to enhance those around it.
A Darren Fletcher.
An Amy Adams.
Which brings us to lists
In the glorious realm of lists, the semicolon can work wonders, adding a touch of clarity, particularly when the list items already contains commas.
Consider this example:
“The conference attendees came from London, UK; Paris, France; and Berlin, Germany.”
Here, the semicolons help to separate the items within the list while keeping it obvious which parts should stay together.
Without the semicolon:
“The conference attendees came from London, UK, Paris, France, and Berlin, Germany.”
And while it still makes sense, it may need to be reread a couple of times to become clear.
Feel the rhythm
If you find yourself writing paragraphs of very. short. staccato. sentences. then you can risk your writing sounding a little childlike. Again, context, might be fine.
Read through your paragraphs. If some are connected enough to warrant a stapling then a well-placed semicolon or two can help to change up your rhythm, making your copy much more readable.
At the end of the day it’s a slightly more advanced piece of punctuation than most people are comfortable with, so we would recommend limited, supervised use it until you’re very confident. Make sure things have enough of a connection to warrant it’s inclusion, and outside of lists, don’t use it merely as a stand-in for commas. It’s there to help with clarity and understanding, so if it might get in the way, just leave it out.
* Yes, technically football has Laws. Shush.
**Whenever you see someone explaining offside, they always skip over the part where it’s the second-last opponent who’s the important one. It’s just taken as a given that the keeper will be back there, but in these days of sweeper keepers marauding up the pitch, there’s a lot higher chance that this will come into play. Yep, this one actually was just about the offside rule.