Semicolons are misunderstood, sparking reactions ranging from fear to contemptuous dismissal. Author Kurt Vonnegut called them "transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing."
When I was in school, even the semicolon's appearance was a problem; it looked wishy-washy. It's not a colon, and it's not a comma, but rather something in between. I never knew when to use semicolons, so I'd scatter them in papers like paisley-dot flourishes. Rules about them were unclear. One style guide advised me to use a semicolon to indicate more separation than a comma but less than a period.
What does that mean in practical terms? I distilled the guidance into two simple rules. Use a semicolon to:
- Separate items in a series when those items already have commas
- Link independent clauses when a conjunction isn't there
He believed his team would win every game if he wore boxers in the team colors of orange, blue, and white; a black top hat with orange fringe; and lucky striped socks, also in the team's colors.
Note that the semicolon is used before the final "and" in the sentence above.
Semicolons can also join independent clauses that communicate related thoughts when no conjunction is present. Here's an example:
The snow melted; daffodil tips broke through the mud's surface.
The last thing to remember about semicolons is that they generally go outside of quotation marks, as seen below:
She warned me, "If you track sand through the house, you'll be cleaning it"; I guess I better find the broom.
These simple rules will help you to embrace the semicolon and its wishy-washy shape. We can all appreciate this symbol of punctuation as more than part of an emoticon. ;-)