When used properly, the semicolon accentuates a writer’s literary vision.
I describe the punctuation mark as a “semiperiod.”
Renaming the symbol would likely decrease its incorrect usage, but before I initiate a movement to do so, let’s start with some straightforward best practices.
Here are the three most common ways to use a semicolon correctly. (And even if the “International Rename the Semicolon Movement” doesn’t go viral, its accurate implementation may become more frequent than its place in the winking eye emoticon. Insert winking eye emoticon here.)
Correct Semicolon Use #1 – Join Two Independent Clauses
In Margot Gregory’s October 2010 cover story for Marie Claire magazine, “Katie Holmes Takes Control,” Gregory’s opening sentence demonstrates two independent clauses joined by a semicolon:
Katie Holmes doesn't really walk; she glides.
“Katie Holmes doesn’t really walk” and “she glides” each could be distinct sentences, but they are related thoughts. The latter complements the former.
Let’s pretend that “semiperiod” is the semicolon’s stage name.
When the reader does not need a comprehensive break between sentences, a writer can omit the period at the end of a sentence and spotlight the semicolon. (Cue the semiperiod; we’re ready for its close-up.)
You can also use a semicolon instead of a conjunction (“and,” “but,” “so,” etc.) that combines two independent clauses into one sentence:
When we cooked dinner last night, I made the salad and Tom cooked the pasta.
When we cooked dinner last night, I made the salad; Tom cooked the pasta.
Correct Semicolon Use #2 – Join Two Independent Clauses With a Transition
If a transitional phrase or conjunctive adverb strengthens the connection between two independent clauses, you may use a semicolon:
Jenny hated the film; consequently, she wrote a negative review on her blog.
Are semicolons ever necessary?
Observe your hands in the standard keyboard typing position. The right little finger is the only one that rests on a key that is not a letter; it’s placed on the semicolon/colon key. They are both serious punctuation marks.
Correct Semicolon Use #3 – Join List Items With Internal Punctuation
The semicolon has a special function when a writer needs to communicate a compound list with internal punctuation.
It takes the place of the serial comma in the presence of sub-descriptions:
The U.S. West Coast trip included stops in Salinas, California; Bend, Oregon; and Kirkland, Washington.
I knew three people at the party: Jack, a coworker; Mary, Jack’s girlfriend; and Rick, the host’s husband.
It doesn’t actually matter what you call the semicolon. The term “semiperiod” would likely just encourage new incorrect uses of the punctuation mark (such as frequently substituting it for a period, and you never want to capitalize the first letter of a word after a semicolon —unless it’s a proper name).
The fundamental lesson is the appropriate application of the semicolon.
If you prefer illustrations, check out The Oatmeal’s “How to Use a Semicolon.” The comic strip depicts correct semicolon use with gorillas in party hats, bears with “pause,” and dinosaurs that love high fives; it’s excellent.