When to use a semicolon

We take a look at the times when semicolons can be useful and when it is better to avoid them.

Correct punctuation enhances the reading experience by providing clarity and setting flow. Poor punctuation on the other hand, confuses meaning, jars and may well reduce credibility in your message. For many, us included, the use of a semicolon is up there with excessive exclamation marks! But it does have a place. So today, we are sharing our views on when to use a semicolon. 

Using semicolons in lists

The most useful function we find for a semicolon is in separating items in a list when a comma is not up to the job. By this we mean that the items contain internal punctuation which may confusingly require commas themselves. In these circumstances, separating the items with further commas will lead to a mess. Enter the semicolon as a helpful level up from the comma. 

For example, “Next year I am visiting Dublin, Ireland; Cardiff, Wales; and Edinburgh, Scotland.” 

Or, “For dinner we had vegetable soup; steak, which was served medium rare; a chocolate brownie, ice cream and berry compote; and, finally, an excellent selection of cheeses and biscuits.” 

As you can see, with commas required within each list item already, they will be pretty useless at separating the items. So in this instance, the semicolon is genuinely useful.

Avoiding semicolons

Technically, semicolons can be used to connect two complete, independent sentences that share a logical connection, and many style guides will tell you to do this. 

For example, “I deposited money in the bank; I was saving for a car.”. 

However, our view at On Point, is that the semicolon should be used as a last resort. That is only when other forms of punctuation are insufficient. It’s often better to simply restructure your writing and split such multi-clausal sentences in two (unless you’re planning on writing the next Moby Dick that is and flowery language is the order of the day!). What you will find is that it makes the writing less fussy and improves readability.

When to use a semicolon: Somewhere between a comma and a full stop 

So, to summarise, as reflected in its appearance, a semicolon is somewhere between a comma and a full stop. But we would advise sticking to either commas or full stops whenever you can to retain clarity in your writing. Unless, that is, they really won’t do and a semicolon can help you out.

If you want to apply an expert touch to your business writing, whether it is to enhance clarity, improve your messaging or simply ensure you get your punctuation correct, give the On Point team a call on 0117 244 0116.

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Huw Bendon

Huw founded On Point Copywriting and leads the team, allocating the resources you need to achieve your goals. He has been copywriting since 2003 on both the client and agency side. Huw gets involved with all aspects of our service delivery with a particular focus on the planning and quality assurance stages.