(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)
BookWorks founder and CEO, Betty Kelly Sargent, is a veteran editor with over 30 years experience in traditional publishing. In her new monthly column, she answers questions submitted by readers. In this month's post, she clears up the confusion about the use of semicolons.
I have never understood how to use semicolons properly, so I rarely use them in my writing. I know I’m not the only one confused about this—I was talking to a professional writer friend the other day and he pleaded ignorance as well. It can’t be as complicated as it seems. Can it? Can you explain semicolons in a way I can actually understand? Please!
Semicolons can be pesky little things. Lots of people have trouble figuring out when and how to use them, including me, until now.
Use Semicolons in Two Instances
The fact is, there are only two ways to use a semicolon in English formal writing. The first and most common is to separate what could otherwise be two complete, closely related sentences. For example: “Sam’s brand new Maserati didn’t start this morning; it was out of gas,” or “I never use semicolons; I don’t understand them,” or “Addie loves listening to Bach; it soothes her soul.”
The second is to separate items in a series, where one or more of the items has internal punctuation, such as “Kristin, the flutist; Harry, the pianist; and John, the guitarist, gave the best performances of their lives.”
That’s it. Maybe it’s not so complicated after all.
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