Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ask the Editor - The Dreaded Semicolon

My question: The dreaded semicolon. When I work in MSWord, it is forever telling me to replace a comma with a semicolon. I usually obey the MSWord wizard because I don’t seem to know what I’m doing. Is there some way to tell (some rule of thumb?) if what I have is two sentences—that should be broken up rather than use a semicolon?

Thanks for your time.

Billie A. Williams

The Capricorn Goat


A lot of writers find the semicolon mysterious. I’d like to see you take charge of your writing and not let the MS Word wizard boss you around about it.

In order to do that, you need to view punctuation as a set of communication tools that you can use to signal your reader how you want them to interpret what you’ve written.

The three basic punctuation tools are a comma, a semicolon, and a period. I often think of them as traffic signs. When I see a comma, I slow down. A semicolon tells me to yield, and a period shouts, “Stop.” It’s that simple.

Think of one of your sentences where the Word wizard tells you to use a semicolon instead of a comma. What do you intend for that sentence to accomplish? If you want it to be two sentences, use a period and tell the reader to stop between them, especially if each sentence is really long.

But suppose the two sentences are closely related in subject matter and you want the reader to view them as a unit. Then you can thank the wizard for his advice and insert the semicolon he suggested. The reader will pause between the two sentences, but she won’t pause as long as if you had used a period.

If you are using one or more incomplete sentences, you can use a comma to join them into one, especially if they are short. But if you want to be very careful, stick with the semicolon between two complete sentences of any length.

You may want to show the exact relationship between the two sentences. If so, you can use a comma and one of these words: but, and, or, when, while, or yet. Each word gives the reader a different signal as to how the sentences are related. Elle Neal posted a great BRP post about the four different categories of commas, so you should read it to learn more about commas and how to use them. She asked that I give you this message: “MS Word is suggesting a semicolon because Billie is missing a joining word following her commas.” Elle is referring to the six joining words listed at the beginning of this paragraph.

Note: Everything I’ve said presupposes that both of your sentences are independent, which is an old-fashioned grammar term. Basically, an independent sentence must contain a subject and a verb and be able to stand alone. It must not begin with a word such as although, after, before, if, since, unless, which, etc. Connectors such as these will make one of the sentences dependent on the other one, and what I’ve said about semicolons won’t apply (though a comma might).

Here are four basic rules and suggestions that follow from my advice.

1. If the two sentences are brief, a comma is acceptable, as in Mary bought bread, she also bought gas. A semicolon is correct in this case also. You can also connect two short sentences by using a comma and but, and, or, when, while, or yet.

2. If the subject matter of the sentences is closely related and the sentences are long, retain the semicolon, as in this example. Mary went to the store to buy a loaf of bread; she also drove to the filling station for gas.

3. If the subject matter of the sentences is not closely related, use a period instead of a semicolon, as in Mary went to the store to buy a loaf of bread. Sam drove to the filling station for gas.

4. Dialogue seems more natural without a semicolon, so when you write dialogue,
use either a comma or a period unless your publisher advises differently.

After you’ve read and thought about my explanations and suggestions, hopefully you’ll feel comfortable enough to tell the MS Word wizard that you appreciate his advice and, although you’ll take it occasionally, most of the time you’d rather do it your way.

I hope this helps.

Shelley Thrasher has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. She spends most of her time style-editing for Bold Strokes Books. She also enjoys writing poetry and novels, which you can find on Amazon.


  1. Great advice.

    I'll remember it easily now that you've colour coded the differences for me. Red light = period, amber light= semi colon and green light for comma.

    Thanks for simplifying the differences.

  2. Nice simple way to look at a very scary punctuation mark- thanks.

    I think MS Word may be created by someone attempting to make hardworking writers look like idiots. That bossy paperclip man is always trying to tempt me down the path of poor grammar; I resist when I can.
    (any chance I used that ; properly?)

  3. I'm comfortable with semicolons, but a book editor told me to get rid of most of them. Are semicolons seen as a "stuffy" punctuation mark, or a distracting one, or any other negative connotation? I write high fantasy, if that makes a difference.

  4. I confess, I love the little wizard. He does make me consider something I might have overlooked, and even if not, I can just boot him out with reckless abandon. Feels kind of good sometimes. LOL.


  5. I appreciated this post. It's a very succinct and clear tutorial.

  6. Great way to break it down.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. I confess I become perturbed when the subject of semicolons arises and the response is some kind of subjective "it all depends."

    Here are the basics:

    1. Use a semicolon instead of a colon to separate the two parts of a compound-complex sentence. A c-c sentence means both the parts contain nonrestrictive elements--clauses or phrases. Clauses have subjects, phrases don't.

    EXAMPLE: Susan, who was tired of fighting over who would do the dishes, started running the water; but apparently feeling guilty, Joshua turned off the TV, despite the fact the game was just starting, and came to help.

    2. Use a semicolon to separate elements in a list IF one or more of the elements contain commas.

    EXAMPLE: The contents of Joan's closet revealed the phases of her surrender to fashion: a miniskirt, which she'd worn once and spent the whole night tugging down; two pairs of tie-dyed bell-bottoms; platform heels, which had almost resulted in a broken ankle.

    3. Use a semicolon to separate the two parts of a complex sentence if you don't use a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, etc.).

    EXAMPLE: John opened the door of the car and waited; Mary sat without moving for just long enough to make it clear she was angry.

    The Word grammar rules are based (awkwardly, as with all things Word) mostly on those three rules. What it can't take into account, being stupid like any other computer program, is reader comprehension.

    So, sometimes you can use a comma instead of a semicolon in a compound-complex sentence if by doing so you won't confuse the reader. This is where having a good critique group or, at the very least, one well-versed reader, is essential. They can tell you when you need the clarification a semicolon provides; you as the author (see how that works?) are going to be too close to the material to be able to pick up on that nuance.

  8. I sincerely appreciate the advice given as well as the comments provided afterward. This is a great way to learn. It seems these things, concrete examples, stick in my head much better.
    MS Wizard tread carefully, I am armed and dangerous, now.
    Thanks again.

  9. Thanks for a simple to understand explanation for a confusing problem.

  10. This is a spectacular post that covers everything. Thank you!

  11. Yes, what ElanaJ said.

    Thanks for this.

  12. Many thanks to all of you for your comments on my post. I taught freshman composition for so long that I was forced to simplify my approach to punctuation over the years because most college students don't speak in grammatical terms very readily.

    Ann, I like the way you added color to my explanation. I'll remember your innovation.
    Congratulations, Lauri. You nailed that semicolon.
    Heidi. I do think some people consider semicolons "stuffy" and old-fashioned. Not sure why.
    Dani, I can just see you chatting with the little wizard, then booting him out. ;)
    Marvin and Morgan. Thanks for your continued support.
    Elizabeth, your explanations are right-on grammatically. Great backup.
    Billie, Elaine, Elana, and dynastic-queen. I appreciate your kudos. So glad you found my post worthwhile.

  13. Great post, Shelley. Simple and clear. And easy to remember, too!


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