Like colons, semicolons are used to indicate a connection between sentences or clauses which could otherwise be treated as distinct and grammatically complete in their own right.
A semicolon represents a pause and in emphasis falls somewhere between a colon and a comma.
The most common use for semicolons is punctuating lists. In this situation, a semicolon can be seen as a replacement for the word and:
- I had several things on my shopping list: bananas; bread; milk; cheese; beans;
- She had plenty of reasons for not wanting to go - she did not have any money; she had to go to work the next day; she was not a fan of the film's director.
Semicolons are particularly useful for punctuating lists of longer clauses in order to avoid confusion:
- The following have been short-listed for the player of the season award: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal and Manchester United winger; Chelsea duo Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast striker, and Frank Lampard, England international; Liverpool captain and England midfielder Steven Gerrard.
Semicolons have other stylistic or rhetorical uses. Their correct use can be very effective, but care should be taken, as inappropriate usage is common. Semicolons often appear alongside coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, such as and, but, or, although, however, and therefore:
- John's boss told him he was very happy with his work; and, if he kept it up, he said a promotion was not out of the question;
- The semicolon causes many students difficulties; however, with a bit of practice, they can become an important weapon in your writing arsenal;
- Correct use of punctuation is essential when writing a formal essay; therefore, make sure you are familiar with how to use them.
The pause of the semicolon gives emphasis to the clause or sentence which follows in much the same way as a colon. This can be an effective rhetorical tool when presenting an argument in situations where you want to contradict one point with another, offer a balanced perspective, or offer an explanation:
- Shakespeare's sonnets are often overlooked in favour of his plays; but his mastery of metre and diction make them some of the finest examples of lyric poetry in the English canon;
- Leave nothing to chance; always read through your work thoroughly to check for mistakes.
Unlike the colon, there is no debate over whether or not a semicolon should be followed by a lower or upper case letter - a semicolon is always followed by the lower case.
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