Let’s Nit: Should You Use Semicolons?

Semicolons. Some writers use them because their sentences tend to the long and complex. Other writers, notably Kurt Vonnegut, advised against ever using a semicolon. Where do you stand on semicolons?
Writing Tip for Today: Whenever my Word program insists that a sentence needs a semicolon (thank you squiggly green lines!), I reevaluate the sentence. Most of the time, what I thought was a straightforward compound sentence is really two separate thoughts. If I break the sentence into two complete sentences, I often find the flow of the writing improved. I don’t like “always” or “never” rules but this semicolon usage argument is one I do consider. Some argue that it elevates the writing, but to me it feels like a holdover from another time, when readers had leisure to peruse long sentences.

Try This! Do you have a semicolon habit? If so, rewrite sentences containing a semicolon to make separate sentences. Read the passage aloud. Is the work improved? Why or why not?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

3 comments on “Let’s Nit: Should You Use Semicolons?

  1. Semicolons always go outside a closing quotation mark. Example: He said, “I’m leaving”; then he left.
    They can also be used between elements in a list when needed for clarity. Example: He took a hamster, snake and gerbil to school; a horse, cow and pig to 4-H; and a painting, a sketch and pottery to art class.
    That also opens the question about serial commas. Maybe next time.

  2. Most modern writers feel free to break the rules about sentence structure (including the use of semi-colons)in order to achieve their voice or to create a certain rhythm. However, as I like to tell my English students,you need to know the rule before you can break them.

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