After the fun we had yesterday with apostrophes, I thought it was time to become a bit semicolonical and to discuss the often over-looked semicolon, which is perhaps the punctuation mark most likely to fall out of use in the not too distant future. In fact many people rarely if ever use it already, except in emoticons ;).

The semicolon was first used by Aldus Manutius the elder (1449-1515) to separate words opposed in meaning and to mark off interdependent statements. It was introduced into English in 1560, and was used throughout Europe by the late 18th century.

There are two main uses of the semicolon in English:

1) It can be used to join independant clauses not linked by a co-ordinating conjunction such as and or but. For example:

regular exercise helps reduce blood pressure; a balanced diet is also important.

2) It can be used in lists containing commas within each point. For example:

Henry’s mother believes three things: that every situation, no matter how grim, will be happily resolved; that no one knows more about human nature than she; and that Henry, who is thirty-five years old, will never be able to do his own laundry.


In some languages, such as Greek and Church Slavonic, the semicolon is used as a question mark. How are semicolons used in your language?

This entry was posted in Language, Words and phrases, Writing.

11 Responses to Semicolonical

  1. Benjamin says:

    As far as I know, in German it is used the same way as in 1): If you just can’t decide wether to put a full stop or a comma, because you don’t want the parts to be separate sentences and want a pause between them.

    I find it quite difficult to define, when to use it along colons, commas and full stops, but I think I’ve somehow got the feeling for it – in German.

    It’s funny however, that every language seems to use punctuation marks slightly different or have different rules how to place them. I’ve heard that in English you actually use a dash without spaces, while in German you have to put a space before and after it, unless you want it to be a hyphen.

    A similar thing is with quotation marks, which are sometimes different signs altogether (German ,, ” – English ” ” – French > (>, while in German (and English!?) you leave out the inner spaces “like this”.

    Strange and somehow interesting topic.

  2. I wouldn’t say that the semicolon is likely to become obselete any time soon, however, I’m sure a great many people use it in a manner that is not technically “correct”. I know I sometimes use it when a comma would be better.

    It is also interesting, as you noted, that in Greek the symbol is used as a question mark. Πόθεν εί;

  3. Polly says:

    As one can see in this site, Omniglot, to verify, Armenian uses a different set of punctuation altogether and I haven’t seen a semicolon or anything serving that purpose in any writings.

    I learned to use the ; only about a year ago. I found the instructions for the care and feeding of the semicolon in the grammar section of an electronic Franklin(TM) dictionary that, out of sheer idle curiosity, began to peruse.

    I’ve been using it ever since in the first sense, listed above – to join two related sentences or clauses that I don’t actually want to make into single, long sentences. Like a new toy, I’m sure I abused it at first; I inserted two or three into every e-mail.

  4. Polly says:

    There’s that “moderation” comment again! This is really weird. Am I the only one this is happening to? …to whom this is happening?

  5. Jared says:

    I hope the semicolon doesn’t fall out of common English use; I like it a lot. Besides, according tomy college English teacher, some words require it, such as in the sentence “She didn’t like him; however, she knew he liked her.” You can do without it by splitting the sentence in two where the semicolon comes in, but it’s a little bit clumsier. There’s nothing wrong with making a sentence long and mellifluous provided it doesn’t run on and on.

  6. AR says:

    @ Benjamin. On Wikipedia, there is a whole list of topics on puntuation including how the symbols look and how they are used in various languages and scripts.

  7. Ben L. says:

    Ughh! I confess the “however” semicolon vs. comma dilemma has me stumped. I believe simply using a comma before the however is passable, particularly in simpler sentences where the lack of punctuation after “however” doesn’t jar the reader (e.g. Your account is in our records, however you can’t access it online yet.)

    In more complicated sentences, however, more puctuation seems necessary (e.g. The size, weight, and texture of melons all play an important role in their selection; however, given the current weather, such melon-picking pickiness is in danger of being thrown out with last year’s rinds.)

    My old Prentice-Hall grammar offers no exception for the former example, however, prescribing semicolons all “conjunctive adverbs” (e.g. “however”).

  8. Simon says:

    Polly – the spam filter isn’t targetting you specifically; it’s just picking up on certain key words you’re using (I’m not sure which ones).

  9. SamD says:

    @ Ben L.

    It sounds like the question would be how complicated a sentence has to be to become complicated. If truly complicated or long sentences are involved, a sentence might be easier to follow separated into two or more complete sentences.

  10. Polly says:

    I remember a movie or show in which a character was involved in the study of Shakespeare’s use of the semicolon. I don’t know if that idea was taken from real life. I didn’t even notice Shakespeare USED semicolons. ;)Not surprisingly, the character was portrayed as a real bore. I think he was played by Carey Elwes.

    SIMON – I know; I’ve looked at my posts to find a pattern; no pattern is apparent.

    Is it ever proper to use more than one semicolon in a sentence as a conjuction?

  11. Jared says:

    Polly- I think a sentence that requires that many semicolons is probably a run-on sentence and should be sliced down into smaller ones. In language, there’s a point where complexity stops making one look smart and starts making one look dumb. I THINK (I’m not sure) that one semicolon is enough.

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