[Tipster] The Pesky, Puzzling Punctuation Mark

tipster post Oct 03, 2022

The semicolon is a mystery to many; just ask my friend. 

She’s a paralegal at a snazzy Chicago law firm.

One of her primary functions is to review legal briefs written by the attorneys in her office. 

One lawyer’s briefs are bedazzled with semicolons, like a Christmas tree decorated by a 3-year-old.

“He places them in his briefs like ornaments,” she says.

Where a comma is necessary, he places a semicolon; where a period is perfect, he places a semicolon; where a colon is correct, he places a semicolon. 

“He must think they jazz up his briefs,” she says. “Or maybe they make him feel like a sophisticated writer.”

But really, they signal the opposite. Misuse makes your writing look amateurish.

The Soft Stop vs. the Hard Stop 

I’m one of those people who geeks out over punctuation, and how using a semicolon instead of a period, for instance, can actually change the meaning or flow of your writing.

Punctuation can be used strategically. And it ought to be if you are mastering the craft of writing.

But first you need to know how to use it correctly.

And the semicolon is one of those pesky punctuation marks that puzzles writers.

I like thinking of the semicolon as a weak period. A period, of course, is used to signal the end of a sentence. It’s a hard stop. 

Semicolons are stops as well. But softer stops. They are stronger than a comma. But softer than a period.

They are used to link two closely related ideas, which on their own stand as independent clauses (independent clauses, if you don’t know, form a complete sentence).

And that’s the catch: the clauses must be independent. You can’t have an independent clause and dependent clause separated by a semicolon. (That’s the work of an emdash, a comma, or maybe a colon). 

“Will a Semicolon Work Here?”

Here’s a helpful question about when to use a semicolon:

Can I replace the semicolon with the period and two complete sentences would stand?

Sometimes the two independent clauses are opposing ideas. Using a semi-colon signals you want the reader to take in the two ideas together. 

Often the second independent clause is a closely related logical statement. Check out my opening statement.

There are other uses for semicolons, like in serial lists, or when linking two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb; however, I won’t get into those instances today.

Start today by mastering the semi-colon that separates two independent clauses.

Resist the temptation to use it too much.

And use it strategically: create a deliberate pause between two linked ideas.

You can do it!