A Filofacts on … semi-colons


A set of letters in The Guardian, 5.4.2008, explained the functions of the semi-colon pretty well …

The semicolon does not deserve such agonised and pretentious debate (G2, April 4): it is an entirely practical tool. You are writing a sentence of two parts, which would normally be separated by a comma; but one or both of those halves already needs a comma inside it. In that case, you separate the larger parts by a semi-colon. It is a comma that has been promoted, for the sake of clarity, to distinguish it from its subordinate commas. You would not use it to replace the colon in the first sentence of this letter.
Richard Andrews

John Henley says that the semicolon “can serve to divide two phrases that are in themselves independent”. An example of this would be “Henley doesn’t know his English grammar; or word terminology” which, though true, is a nonsensical usage. He meant clauses, which have verbs, not phrases, which don’t. And I do semicolons in my writing, but only when necessary.
Copland Smith

I use semi-colons all the time; well, nearly all the time.
Christopher Macy

I submit the following as an example of when the use is unavoidable: “I’m reaching breaking point; he snapped.”

This also might be submitted as the Hemingway Award entrant for a story in six words.
WE Vukmirovic


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