Are you making these semicolon mistakes?

Hot off the press, here’s a sneak preview of one of the lectures from my soon-to-be-released online course, Complete Punctuation: Novice to Pro.

In the video, you’ll learn how to:

  • use the semicolon correctly in a sentence

  • avoid the most common semicolon errors

  • choose between the semicolon and the colon

Kurt Vonnegut famously said the only use for the semicolon is to show you’ve been to college. If you’re show off your college education, here are two common semicolon mistakes to avoid.

Semicolon mistake #1: connecting incomplete sentences

Take a look at this an example, which is demonstrates correct use of the semicolon:

I like Italy; the people are friendly and the food is delicious.

This example demonstrates the number one rule for using semicolons correctly when joining closely related sentences. That is, you must use a full sentence both before AND after a semicolon. In other words, the option to replace the semicolon with a full stop should always be available.

So here, the phrase ‘I like Italy’ could stand alone. Likewise, ‘the people are friendly and the food is delicious’.

But what if we said:

I like Italy; because of the food and friendly people.

This would be incorrect, because it doesn’t meet the rule that you must use a full sentence both before AND after a semicolon. ‘I like Italy’ is a full sentence. But ‘because of the food and friendly people’ doesn’t make sense on its own as an independent sentence. Strictly, you couldn’t replace the semicolon with a full stop here.

Likewise, with:

Italy; I go there for the food and friendly people.

Here, we have the reverse problem. The phrase ‘I go there for the food and friendly people’ is a full sentence. But ‘Italy’ on its own is not. Again, strictly speaking you couldn’t replace the semicolon with a full-stop.

Of course, you may choose to use a full stop if you were playing with the conservative rules of grammar. But if you’re committed to the semicolon, you’re committed to somewhat conservative rules of grammar, so you probably won’t want to annoy your fellow semicolon-ists!

Semicolon mistake #2: confusing it with the colon

Another mistake I often see is confusing the semicolon and the colon. For example, using a semicolon to introduce a list, as in:

The dish has main three ingredients; potatoes, onions and cream.

Here, the semicolon should be a colon. In some situations, you may have a choice between a semicolon and a colon.

The differences are quite subtle, so make sure you understand them. Let’s take a look at an example.

Here we have two statements separated by a full stop:

Jackie was disappointed. Pat was bored.

Now, in all likelihood, Jackie’s and Pat’s moods are related. After all, why has the writer told us about them?

However, if we wanted to be more forceful in implying a relationship between Jackie’s disappointment and Pat’s boredom, we could replace the full stop with either a semicolon or a colon. But here’s the key: it depends on exactly how the two statements are related.

What if we say:

Jackie was disappointed; Pat was bored

Well, this punctuation definitely suggests a link between Jackie’s disappointment and Pat’s boredom. Perhaps Jackie is disappointed by the same thing that made Pat bored, say. So, for example, maybe they’d been to see a film together - and the film disappointed Jackie and at the same time bored Pat.

But if we say:

Jackie was disappointed: Pat was bored.

Then the nuance of the sentence is slightly different.

The primary use of a colon is to introduce an explanation or elaboration of what has come before. And here, the use of the colon suggests that Pat’s boredom explains Jackie’s disappointment. In other words, Jackie was disappointed because Pat was bored. Maybe, then, in this case, Jackie had excitedly recommended the film to Pat and was disappointed because it bored them.

As that last example shows, whether you use a colon or a semicolon can subtly change your meaning - so you need to be quite careful when choosing which to use. Although it all depends on your reader understanding these subtle nuances - which is far from guaranteed!

About Complete Punctuation: Novice to Pro

Complete Punctuation: Novice to Pro is set to go live in May 2019. My goal with the course is to provide a completely comprehensive guide to punctuation in UK and American English. It'll feature sections on every aspect of punctuation, including:

  • commas

  • apostrophes

  • full stops/periods

  • colons and semicolons

  • hyphens and dashes

  • brackets

  • quotation marks

  • question marks and exclamation marks

  • bullet points

I’ve done a huge amount of research to make the course as comprehensive as can be. But can you help me make sure I’ve got everything covered? Let me know what burning questions you have about punctuation – and I’ll do my best to answer them in the course.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in enrolling in the course, do sign up to our newsletter for occasional blog updates and a reminder when the course launches. I'll also send you a copy of my ebook, The 200 Writing Tips That'll Get You Writing Like A Pro.