You’re not using semicolons; you should.

 

Let’s say you wrote a friendly letter to your boss, and upon rereading it before you drop it in the mailbox, you notice something amiss:

You smell like an elephant’s butt, an elephant’s butt would actually be a better boss.

Oh, no! That comma separates two complete sentences without a conjunction (and, but, or, so) after it. This sentence is a run-on; it’s a good thing you caught it.

Have no fear; it’s easily fixable. You don’t need to erase or cross anything out; you don’t need to cram in the word “and” after the comma. Simply turn that comma into a semicolon by adding one simple, tiny dot above it.

You smell like an elephant’s butt; an elephant’s butt would actually be a better boss.

Suddenly, your major grammar faux pas has been transformed into a more sophisticated, enlightened sentence. Your boss will be impressed; I guarantee it.

Kurt Vonnegut once famously wrote, “Do not use semicolons… All they do is show you’ve been to college.” That’s not true; they may show you’ve taken Mr. Marano’s seventh-grade English class, and in a few minutes, they’ll show you’ve read Mr. Marano’s blog.

In its simplest form, a semicolon’s job is to connect two related sentences. Seeing a semicolon end a sentence is no cause for alarm; it simply means the second sentence is closely related to the first.

Take a look back at all the semicolons used so far in this blog; you’ll notice a few things that each use has in common.

  1. Two separate sentences are connected; both sentences could stand alone as independent clauses.
  2. There is no conjunction next to the semicolon; there is only the next sentence.
  3. The second sentence starts with a lower-case letter; this is why a semicolon is such a perfect fix for a comma splice.
  4. A semicolon can’t replace a comma; each has its own discrete purpose.
  5. Most importantly, the two sentences are closely related to each other; the second one wouldn’t make as much sense without the first one.

There are other uses for a semicolon, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, just know there’s nothing particularly fancy or convoluted about it, and you can use it skillfully with just a little practice.

Just don’t overdo it; nobody likes that.


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