Semicolons are a dying art; I often wonder if this is because they are an unknown realm for many writers. It’s as if they represent a quasi-reality that’s not quite period, not quite comma, and best avoided.
But they really are quite useful and not nearly as confusing as they appear. Let’s look at the three main uses:
- Commas galore: If you’re working with a list of phrases or clauses that are complex and have other commas buried in them, then use a semicolon between each phrase or clause. This keeps the reader from going back to unravel the knots. Use this when you have a list of dates, especially with days and years; three or more main ideas in a long sentence; or any series that requires extra commas, just as this one uses.
- Complicated numbers: Separate complicated lists of numbers with a semicolon—especially if there are colons in the numbers (e.g., 24:5–10; 25:2; and 32:4–18 or 1.2a–v; 1.5v–z).
- A subtle stop: Periods bring your thought to an end; em dashes create a noticeable gap. But semicolons give you a slight pause between sentences that are closely related. As long as you keep this type rare, they can be effective.