Updated: Mar 2, 2020
There’s admittedly a miles-long list of mistakes that irritate editors. We’re a very touchy lot. I'm sad to say.
It’s part of why I was (and still am) so happy to go rouge and run my own editing business. This way, I have far fewer fellow editorial voices in my ear complaining about the most ridiculous grammatical issues that no one else cares about outside of the editorial community.
Sorry. I still have PESD (post editorial stress disorder) from the experience.
With that said, the lack of understanding about how to properly use a semicolon is rather unfortunate.
No, I take it back. It’s downright irritating. In fact, it might be the most irritating common writing mistake people trend toward.
That’s not to say the people who commit such words crimes are irritating themselves. Far from it. They genuinely think they’re being sophisticated – or just appropriate – by using semicolons the way that they do.
Which is wrong.
Honestly, I’m not sure who to blame in this regard. Maybe it’s the education system that’s failed society so badly. Maybe it’s a common failure of the human brain.
Or maybe, as The Write Practice puts it, it’s our better natures being taken advantage of.
I’ve got to hand it to The Write Practice for this utterly brilliant opening to its own explanation of semicolons:
Wait a second.
Did you just hear that?
There it is. You heard it too. Don’t try to tell me you didn’t. That was the sound of a semicolon in the throes of a self-esteem battle.
In other words, they're so seldom necessary that they get lonely and beg to be noticed.
That really could be how it goes inside our heads, which makes the millions of writers misusing semicolons out there well-meaning at least.
But so is The Write Practice. The difference is that it actually knows how to put them into a sentence properly.
If you really want a full, detailed, grammar-centric explanation of how to become an expert in when to employ them and when to avoid them, I highly advise that you check that particular article out.
Otherwise, the following examples should do well enough to keep you out of trouble. Or so we can hope.
At the risk of being rudely blunt, there are only ever two reasons to use a semicolon.
That’s it. Two, and no more. And here they are:
1. When there are too many commas involved and there’s no real room for dashes.
For example, say you have a complicated list at hand, such as the following:
I’m going to the zoo to see zebras, tigers and antelope, the circus to see elephants, lions and trained seals, and the aquarium to see dolphins, sharks and penguins.
That sentence is almost visually painful. But it doesn’t have to be when you employ semicolons. Change it instead to:
I’m going to the zoo to see zebras, tigers and antelope; the circus to see elephants, lions and trained seals; and the aquarium to see dolphins, sharks and penguins.
Just like that, everything is in its proper place and easily cataloged.
2. When you’re showing a special relationship between two sentences that could otherwise stand alone.
Here’s an example for this one too:
She’s not really the party type; she’s a bookworm through and through.
That’s it. There’s no other purpose to employing semicolons.
So the next time you hear that little voice in your ear pleading with you to put one down, consider shutting it down instead. No matter how much it begs.