Semicolons: Who Needs 'Em?
Oh! Semicolons. I, like many other editors, love them. But if you’re a writer who finds the semicolon *the worst, * you have options available to you.
One of those options is that you don’t have to use any semicolons at all if you don’t want to. I won’t pressure you.
But if you want to learn the most basic semicolon rules, here you go. There are only two common semicolon uses that writers may “need” to know. At least, two that are simple enough you won’t have to look them up to remember them.
Starting your round of self-edits with a self-editing checklist can make it easier to finalize your manuscript. If you find that you particularly struggle with semicolons, add them as an item to your personal self-editing checklist.
Semicolon Rule 1: Compound Sentences without a Coordinating Conjunction
In Grammarian: When you’re joining two independent clauses into a compound sentence without a coordinating conjunction, use a semicolon.
In plain English: When you want to combine two sentences into one and you’re not using and/or/but, you can use a semicolon.
What it means: you never *have* to use a semicolon in this situation. You can separate it into two sentences, or use a comma with the appropriate coordinating conjunction.
When this can be especially useful: when using a pronoun such as it/this/that.
I ate the pizza. The pizza was delicious.
I ate the pizza, and the pizza was delicious.
I ate the pizza, and it was delicious.
I ate the pizza; it was delicious.
Now I know this is incredibly simple, but it is also clear. (Always start with a basic example when explaining something). You can easily see how we progressed from two sentences to a compound sentence that uses a coordinating conjunction and a comma, to a compound sentence that uses a semicolon and no conjunction.
Honestly, this rule applies even with compound subjects or predicates, with sentences that contain a lot of adjectives or adverbs, and even with sentences chock-full of prepositions.
I ate the wings and pizza; the wings made me sick, but the pizza was delicious.
I ate pizza and drank Coke; this combination made me sick to my stomach.
I ate pizza and got sick; that got me thinking.
I think the semicolon is particularly helpful in sentences with pronouns it/this//that because you can combine two thoughts that are connected, without having to repeat yourself, while maintaining clearly that the pronoun refers to the immediately preceding noun. Sometimes when the pronoun and the noun to which it refers are separated into two sentences, the meaning becomes unclear.
The process of self-editing your book can be long and tedious, so many people hire an editor instead. It can take a long time.
Now, “it” here *probably* refers to “the process of self-editing your book” but “it” could also refer to “hir[ing] an editor.” Do you see what I mean about ambiguity? Readers may become confused.
(If I came across this in a line edit, I would leave a comment with suggestions on how to rewrite this to ensure the meaning remains clear.)
The process of self-editing your book can be long and tedious, so many people hire an editor instead, which can take a long time. (Indicates hiring an editor takes a long time.)
The process of self-editing your book can be long and tedious, which takes a long time, so many people hire an editor instead. (Indicates self-editing your book takes a long time.)
Semicolon Rule 2: Use semicolons to Separate List Items when Lists Contain Lists
Think of it as “list-ception.”
If you have a list of three or more items, you separate each list item with a comma.
I went to the store and bought milk, eggs, and bread.
But when one of your list items contains elements that would also be separated by commas, it would create confusion. So you separate the larger (external) list with semicolons and the shorter (internal) list with commas.
Yesterday I went to the post office, picked up groceries, and dropped off my dry cleaning. The groceries I picked up included milk, eggs, and bread.
As a single sentence:
Yesterday I went to the post office; dropped off my dry cleaning; and picked up groceries including eggs, milk, and bread.
Notice I changed the order of items so the contained list would be at the end. This was simply personal preference; I personally think it’s a bit grammatically neater. But it would also be acceptable to keep them in the original order.
Yesterday I went to the post office; picked up groceries including milk, eggs, and bread; and dropped off dry cleaning.
In this original order, it’s a bit easier to see what I mean by “external” and “internal” lists.
Semicolons: Simple as That!
And that’s it! The two most common and easy-to-follow semicolon rules.
Now, there’s different types of editing, which can vary even more depending on which genre the manuscript is or the type of writer you are. Finish your developmental editing for creative concepts before jumping into your specific technical edits; your manuscript will benefit the most in the end. And your readers will love it!
Want to learn more about semicolons? Check out this blog from Grammarly which guides you through 5 different ways to use semicolons.
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