Avoid semicolons

Semicolons have two functions. They connect independent clauses, and they work like commas in situations where a comma isn’t strong enough, for example in a list of items that already contain their own commas.

An independent clause is a unit that can stand alone as a sentence because it contains both a subject and a verb: Steve quit. So if independent clauses can stand alone as sentences, why bother connecting them with semicolons? Why not just punctuate them as individual sentences instead? Good question.

Sometimes writers want to show that two independent clauses are closely related; they go together. That’s what semicolons do; they tell you that two units that could stand alone as sentences are so important to each other that they should be in the same sentence. But is that really a good reason to force two short, tidy sentences into one long, unwieldy unit?

In my opinion, no. Longer sentences put greater demands on your reader — the mental equivalent of holding your breath till you get to the end. Shorter sentences are more easily digestible. A writer’s job is to deliver information or ideas to readers in the manner most useful to them. So when you start showing off your comma prowess at the reader’s expense, you’ve lost sight of the writer’s purpose.

The worst abuse of semicolons occurs when writers use them to create single-sentence paragraphs. Think about it: If you have a paragraph with just two sentences, it’s obvious those sentences are closely related. So there’s no reason to connect them with a semicolon, creating a single-sentence paragraph.

The other job of semicolons — stringing together items that commas can’t handle — is more practical, sometimes. For example, imagine you’re listing cities where you’ve lived: Burbank, California; Shreveport, Louisiana; Venice, Florida; and Albany, New York. Each of these places contains its own comma. So without semicolons, these four places would be punctuated in a way that suggests they’re actually eight places.
But writers abuse semicolons in this function, too. I explain how in my recent column.

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