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Semicolon

The semicolon ( ; ) has three main uses in modern English.

1.  A semicolon separates two closely related or similarly constructed independent clauses—for example:

Those drinking more than six cups of coffee a day were at 40 percent lower risk for diabetes than nondrinkers; the figure for those who drank less than a cup per day was just 4 percent. [New York Times]

Without the document of 1787, there would have been no United States; with it, the conflict over slavery as the nation expanded became inevitable . . . [You Don’t Say]

2.  Semicolons separate list items that contain internal commas—for example:

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Ms. Milgram, citing her oversight responsibilities for New Jersey nonprofits, filed suit on Sept. 17, naming Dr. Raveché; Lawrence T. Babbio Jr., the chairman of the institute’s board and a former Verizon president; and the Stevens trustees as defendants. [New York Times]

3.  A semicolon may be used to produce a stronger pause than a comma. Such semicolons are often followed by conjunctions, especially but. 

Yes, he had legislative victories; but he didn’t show that Congress can make hard choices and act responsibly, because he never asked it to. [New York Times]

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Comments

  1. Your second and third uses feel very uncomfortable to me. (I’m British, born 1952.)

    With one exception I’ll come to later, I’ve always followed one simple rule about the use of the semicolon. I can’t remember whether it was something I was taught or whether I abstracted it from what I read. It is that a semicolon can only be used when a full-stop would be allowable, but you don’t want to use one because it would be too big a break between two linked ideas. There should never be any syntactic links across the semicolon; the sections of the sentence on either side of it should be potentially free-standing grammatical sentences.

    That’s basically your use 1. I think it also covers the example given for use 3, as I have no objection to starting a sentence with a “but”. But the way you phrase use 3 seems to me be too liberal, potentially allowing sentences that to me would feel completely ungrammatical.

    As, indeed, does your example for use 2. If I had read that example in the NYT, I’d have assumed the semicolon was a typo, because “and the Stevens trustees as defendants” isn’t a possible sentence.

    It is indeed possible to use semicolons as separators in lists. (This is the exception mentioned above.) For instance, if they had asked me to draft the rebel declaration*, it would have started “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (They actually used commas all the way through, though I note that these days it is often quoted with the punctuation “corrected” to the version I prefer.) That particular case might be treated as an example of use 1, but I think that it is also covered by a use very like your use 2, but not identical to it. The difference is that (I think) you can only use semicolons to separate entries in a list if the list has been introduced with a colon. Call that use 2A if you like. Changing your use 2 example to fit use 2A it would become “Ms. Milgram, citing her oversight responsibilities for New Jersey nonprofits, filed suit on Sept. 17, naming as defendants: Dr. Raveché; Lawrence T. Babbio Jr., the chairman of the institute’s board and a former Verizon president; and the Stevens trustees.” (But it’s still a really inelegant sentence.)

    —-

    Oh, OK, “Declaration of Independence”. Only joking. And perhaps, (with the Ukraine in mind), reminding Americans who get their news from the main-stream media that sometimes justice and democracy are on the side of the rebels. (See my recent contributions on The Guardian website for details, though some of the most informative have disappeared down the memory hole, unfortunately.)

  2. Jack Barclay says:

    I thought in a list the semi-colon came after the “and”. So focus on the location of the semi-colon in the 3rd item, “Ms. Milgram, citing her oversight responsibilities for New Jersey nonprofits, filed suit on Sept. 17, naming as defendants: Dr. Raveché; Lawrence T. Babbio Jr., the chairman of the institute’s board and a former Verizon president and; the Stevens trustees.”

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