I write a lot, but I virtually never use semicolons. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever used one here (no, I’m not combing through every post to check, although one of you can feel free to do that if you have nothing else going on ever again). We covered them in school, but for some reason, they never stuck. It certainly doesn’t help that almost nobody uses them. Back when I read just about everything in Braille, I would rarely see them outside of the papers that had our how to use a semicolon lessons written on them. And now that the world has changed so much and I read the vast majority of things either through the screen reader or via audiobook, I notice them even less because every pause sounds like a comma. So should the day come that I find myself the one saddled with having to explain them to a nephew or some other little kid in my life, as it stands right now I’m kind of fucked, honestly.
But that may be about to change thanks to this wee little article from Lifehacker entitled How to Use a Semicolon Correctly. I can’t quite tell you for sure what it is about it, but for some reason it made sense out of the damn things for the first time.
In school they always seemed overly complicated and since they weren’t used much, easily avoidable. To a much lesser extent they were like algebra for me, something I did my best to slog through for the sake of marks and then never thought of again. But this makes them feel different, and if I had to guess, I think that’s why it works where all of the schooling failed. When you’re starting from the premise that it’s ok not to use them and you really don’t have to but might want to because they’re kind of neat and might be helpful now and then, all of the pressure is off. It’s nice to know that you’re not an imbecile if you’ve written a blog for 17 years and still don’t get it…not that I know anyone like that or anything.
And it also helps that they came up with a practical example to illustrate where they might fit.
Use it as a ‘super comma’
You can also use a semicolon as a sort of extra-strength comma to separate items in a list that contain other commas. In this case, the semicolons are there to help avoid confusion.
Example 1: On our trip, we’re going to visit Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Myrtle Beach.
Example 2: This summer I’m going to eat nothing but corn on the cob, boiled to perfection; mozzarella, tomato and basil sandwiches; and endless bowls of fresh strawberries, blueberries and cantaloupe.
I’m not trying to throw any of my teachers under the bus here because I had a lot of good ones, but I don’t remember any of them ever showing me something like that. Most of the emphasis was on the bit about connecting thoughts that could just as easily be separate sentences, which made it difficult to adopt the new concept because why wouldn’t I just keep making them separate sentences? Had I seen this first and then added on the stuff about thought connecting later, maybe the whole thing wouldn’t have seemed so pointless.
Am I going to start using more semicolons now? Who knows? My guess would be probably not. But at least I’ll have a clue where to start if I want to give them a go, which is more than I had a few minutes ago.