Precision: semi-colons

To some people, the semi-colon is a hideous creature. Poet Michael Rosen is one of those people. He says the semi-colon is “neither fish nor fowl”. He means it has no point, no purpose. It’s neither full stop nor comma.

Now, I disagree.

A semi-colon is a beautiful, beautiful mark. Perhaps it is the most beautiful of all the punctuation, if you ask me. It is a pivot. It’s a beautiful little balance that joins together, marrying sentences together like an efficient vicar.

Of course, at the base of it, it sits where a full stop or a coordinating conjunction could go.

Consider this:

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic; dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Yes, it could be a full stop.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic. Dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Or it could be a conjunction.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic whereas dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic, and dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

The first alternatives are fine, but too matter-of-fact for me. There’s nothing really that tells you these ideas are connected, other than your own fine head. If you don’t have a fine head, I might want to tell you that there’s a little Alice-in-Wonderland mirror in that semi-colon where one thing is reflected in the second.

Let’s face it, we have punctuation to tell people what to do. It says stop. It says go. It says the tone has changed! Does it tell you my mood? It tells you if I’m feeling… uncertain. It tells you that I’m explaining something: punctuation is bossy. It tells you I’m disjointed – or disconnected. It makes sense of things like a man-eating tiger and a man eating tiger. It tells you that somet’ing is missin’ and it tells you how I, the writer, wants you to read something. It can add a little something (like when you want to put in additional thoughts) to your work. And if we didn’t have punctuation it would make it fairly hard for most of the population who would then have to ponder about where you would want them to stop or go or how you would want them to proceed because sentences are very important and punctuation is the stuff that makes them without them our words are just mushed up mess and we might as well not have anything at all which would make it a lot easier for some people to write but a lot harder for most people to read. Punctuation governs. It marshals. It is a busy little sheepdog rounding up all the crazy words that hang around a lexical field and makes them jump through hoops. It nips at their heels. It sends them in whatever direction you think they should go in.


Punctuation was invented for a reason.

It’s bossy and magical.

That’s probably what I like about it.

And the semi-colon has a beautiful purpose. Its purpose is to marry two ideas together. It reflects ideas. And it is beautiful. Make no mistake about that. It’s a ballerina of punctuation marks, pivoting and turning. It’s the point on which the whole sentence pirouettes. It dances; it turns. It allows you to make one point and lead a reader; it allows you to turn and make another. It forms a beautiful bond between two ideas; it marries them and links them forever in ways that a full stop can never do. A semi-colon brings clauses together; a full stop divorces them.

A semi-colon is therefore a beautiful wedding of a punctuation mark; do not let what one man has joined be torn asunder.

It doesn’t matter if the clause before comes loaded with punctuation marks of its own, like the humble (and almost ungovernable) comma; the semi-colon can cope with a sentence as long as you want beforehand, with as much non-stop punctuation as you care to use.

A semi-colon is mathematical; sometimes I like to ensure the clause before has the same number of words and mathematical cadence as the clause after it. Sometimes I like to use it to be playful in ways that most other punctuation isn’t.

It’s a misunderstood mark. It’s so much easier to use than a comma (and you can check out the centuries-old arguments about the Oxford comma if you disagree) and it’s so clean and perfect. It makes the reader work to my rhythm.

Kurt Vonnegut said that the only reason to use a semi-colon is to show you’ve been to college. He might be right. But a semi-colon does things that other marks just do not do. No, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules about where it should go (though I’m pretty clear on where it can’t) and yet it’s so easy to use. It makes language dance. It is a beautiful and glorious shift-and-echo.


“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
(Peter Drucker)

What I don’t like is how Mr Michael Rosen tries to use Dickens to further his argument: “I like to punctuate them [sentences] with full stops and not semi-colons. I got this from a writer I like. His names is Charles Dickens.”

He is obviously forgetting the most beautifully-balanced semi-colon use of all:

“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.”

That’d be Dickens. See how he uses the semi-colon to reflect the ideas from the first bit into the second? It’s perfect for comparing two things.

So… rules (because the semi-colon has them!)

  1. You must always ask yourself if you can replace it with a full stop. If you cannot, you need something else. It has a little bit of that full stop in it.
  2. You should also ask yourself if you want to connect the two main ideas in the two bits on either side. Could you use and or whereas? If you can, a semi-colon will be perfect.
  3. Don’t feel like you need to write a list in order to show that you can use them. It looks rubbish and never works.

And those are the rules. Simple, aren’t they?

Now, bearing in mind that As and A*s write beautifully-crafted and governed sentences, you can see why this piece of punctuation can contribute to over-all A*ness. It’s all about making those words do what you want them to do, and punctuation is a deft way of controlling them, like a sheepdog around sheep.

Plus, if we had no semi-colons, how would I do this? ;)

An online wink is just about the nicest thing to do with a semi-colon. So yah boo, Michael Rosen.


One thought on “Precision: semi-colons

  1. Pingback: GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: semi-colons | Teaching English

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