I have seen Fear in a Handful of Semicolons


Something is in the news that I never suspected would become an internet phenom: the besmirched and disparaged semicolon. A book has been published on the subject, and I’ve come to learn many people have been taught to never use semicolons. I don’t remember any specific instructional events involving semicolons and me, but I do think the semicolon is indispensable.

If you were told by your teacher not to use semicolons, I suspect you were told so that you would start to write short, declarative sentences. Like Hemingway’s. One thought to a sentence. Short, declarative sentences are indispensable too; they are where our thoughts come to life.

The semicolon is properly used to join together two independent clauses that relate similar thoughts or themes (except when the clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction):

Donald Trump is corrupt; he is owned by the Russian oligarchs.

This use of the semicolon in a parallel structure (like the one above) serves to give strong emphasis to the independent clause following the semicolon. Note that an independent clause must follow the semi-colon and not some modifying phrase or clause. The semicolon is also effectively used as a kind of pivot point in the sentence, setting up an opportunity for antithesis—the movement from this to that, from one to the other, from darkness to light:

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

The pivot provided by the semicolon and the parallel structure of the joined clauses lends a tolling majesty to the words, a reinforced rhetoric that comes from more than the ideas alone. The rhythm introduced by the semicolon is a big part of its persuasive power. Do not fear the semicolon.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.