Every Breath You Take

Another Writing Wednesday to take your mind off the real world, hooray!

Today we’re talking semicolons, but please don’t run away.

They may seem fancy and unnecessary, but you’d be surprised how often they apply.

Just think of them as super commas. 

To avoid any unnecessary confusion, we’ll stick to the two most common uses.

First up: Lists

Semicolons are the best in complex lists full of items that already have commas.

  • In 2016 I traveled to Dallas, Texas; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Seattle, Washington; and Nashville, Tennessee.
    • If I hadn’t used a semicolon to separate those cities, there’s a chance your brain would read my travel log as six locations instead of three.
  • I have a great track record in terms of reliable cars. There was Mimi, the blue ’95 Toyota Camry; Curtis, the green ’02 Honda CR-V; and Scar, my bright red 2016 Mazda CX-5 (knock on wood).
    • Again, imagine this without the semicolon. You would think Mimi and the ’95 Camry were two different cars when they’re actually the same.
  • Some dates I’m particularly fond of are October 5, 1987; May 24, 2007; May 7, 2011; and August 10, 2013.
    • This is just a matter of good housekeeping. Think of the potential comma chaos. Gross.

Those are all easy enough, right? Cool.

Now we’ll talk independent clauses.

An independent clause can exist as its own sentence, but if you ever wanted to connect two of ’em, a semicolon would be the way to do it.

That said, don’t go around connecting random sentences with a semicolon just because you feel like it – the two should be related.

  • I walked to the coffee shop the other day; it’s 12 miles from my house.
    • Because each is a complete sentence on its own, I could use a period and be totally fine. But the semicolon allows for a quicker pause and keeps me on the same train of thought.
  • The dogs hate when I work anywhere but the couch; they’re obsessed with cuddling.
    • Imagine I’d used a period instead. My second sentence would seem pretty random. The semicolon emphasizes the relationship between the two thoughts.

Does this help? Is it still confusing? Maybe mentioning when you shouldn’t use a semicolon will provide a little more clarity.

Do not put a semicolon before a coordinating conjunction.

  • I arrived at the coffee shop five hours later, but it was closed.

You might be sitting there thinking, “Alli, you totally put a semicolon after ‘and’ in the list examples.”

You’re right, I did. But that’s a list! The conjunction rule only applies to independent clauses.

UNLESS you’re using a conjunctive adverb, in which case semicolons are the way to go.

  • The state of social media is pretty bleak; nevertheless, I still have the compulsive need to check every possible timeline.

Make sense? I hope so.

If I did more harm than good, please let me know with a comment. I just wanted to make this top half of the wink a little less intimidating.



Title Credit: The Police

2 thoughts on “Every Breath You Take

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