Replacement for other types of "sentence glue"
Semicolons are largely a matter of personal preference. Many people never use semi-colons in their everyday writing, yet they can be quite correct in their punctuation. A semi-colon is largely an alternative to a conjunction or a full stop, generally used to suggest there's a fairly close, even causal, relationship between two sentences.
- Correct: The Doctor didn't care; he was going whether the Brigadier liked it or not.
- Correct: The Doctor didn't care. He was going whether the Brigadier liked it or not.
- Correct: The Doctor didn't care, because he was going whether the Brigadier liked it or not.
All of these are correct. It's really just a stylistic choice that can help vary one's sentence construction in an article. What's not correct is:
- Incorrect: The Doctor didn't care, he was going whether the Brigadier liked it or not.
For clarity in lists
If you're listing long series of things, semi-colons help make the border between listed items clearer. This can be vital if one's list include a lot of clauses set off by commas. Consider the following:
- Correct: The Doctor was forced to remember his companions: Leela, the one with the savage tongue; Amy, the girl who didn't want to grow up; Harry, the doctor who was an imbecile; Jamie, the man who had to forget his boyhood; and Barbara, the teacher who should never have come along at all.
Semi-colons help the reader understand where each of these descriptions end. Note, however, that if you start using semi-colons in a list, you must always use them, even if some of the items in the list are uncomplicated. Thus:
- Correct: He appeared in Dallas with Larry Hagman; Dynasty; Coronation Street; EastEnders with Michelle Ryan, Wendy Richard and John Smith; and Last of the Summer Wine.
Although only one of the options here — EastEnders — actually required a semi-colon, they all get semi-colons for consistency.
Not a substitute for other punctuation
Semi-colons mean something different to commas. They are not colons or periods, either. They are a more forceful break than a comma, but less forceful than a colon or period.
Below is a list of several different scenarios where a semi-colon would in fact be wrong. The correct punctuation mark is instead given.
- Before a list
- He wanted the following things: apples, pears and water.
- Separating items comprising a simple list
- The TARDIS control room contained a hatstand, a big chair, a clock, a hexagonal console and one very perplexed girl.
- Before the direct quotation of a full sentence
- The Master said, "Peoples of the Earth, please attend carefully."
The above cases are fairly straightforward and require no great discussion. However, the distinction between a semi-colon and a colon when linking two independent clauses together requires a bit more discussion.
An independent clause is a part of a sentence which has a subject and a verb and could stand on its own. With an independent clause, you could slap a period at the end and it would read correctly. Sometimes, though, you want to put two sentences together in a single sentence because the two sentences are closely related. Check this sentence out:
- The Doctor understood what Wilf's four knocks meant: he was going to die.
"He was going to die" explains what the four knocks meant, so you slam the two sentences together an insert a colon. A semi-colon would be wrong in this case because the second sentence explains the first. Colons should always be used between independent clauses when the second clause is an explanation or example of the first clause — or when it's a rule that can be applied to the first sentence. Here are some more examples:
- The Doctor had decided: he would have the strange, multi-coloured coat that lived at the back of the rack.
- He tried to remember the sequence: was it helmic regulator then handbrake, or the reverse?
- The Master was pure evil: he had killed relentlessly and without remorse.
Now look at this sentence:
- Sarah really didn't want to leave the Fourth Doctor; however, she somehow knew that she must.
See the difference? A semicolon is used because there's a bit of a relationship between the first and second clauses, but it's not nearly so direct as in the first example. The second sentence doesn't at all explain the first. Therefore, it requires the linking word however. Think of the semicolon + however being a substitute for a comma and the conjunction but. The above sentence means exactly the same thing as:
- Sarah really didn't want to leave the Fourth Doctor, but she somehow knew that she must.
By and large, we discourage you from using semi-colons to link two independent clauses, because it makes sentences unnecessarily long or complex. We don't forbid it, because there are always cases where a little variety in sentence construction is useful. Nevertheless, most independent clauses correctly separated by semi-colon read more simply as wholly separate sentences, or by connection with a conjunction like but, and or or.