The semicolon has got to be the most misunderstood and misused piece of punctuation. You want to make friends with it, but whenever you’re faced with the task of popping it into a sentence, you feel it mocking you with its tiny tail and its one good eye.
Fear not; there’s no need to take a course in editorial English to tame this funny bugger. Master the semicolon in your holistic health content by following these two simple rules.
Rules for mastering the semicolon
1. The full-stop rule.
If you can replace the semicolon with a full stop and the result still works, you’re doing it right.
2. The bullet rule.
If you can replace the semicolons with a bulleted list, you’re doing it right.
The semicolon explained
How do you apply these rules? First, let’s examine the two main uses of the semicolon:
A. To link two parts of a sentence that are very closely related.
In the hierarchy of sentence punctuation, a comma is most subtle, a semicolon is stronger and a full stop is the almighty. We use a semicolon between sentence clauses (sentence ‘parts’) to indicate a break that is stronger than a comma but not as strong as a full stop.
- Blend your leafy greens with some water and fruit; you can then drink them raw to get maximum nutritional benefits.
- Some folks are most energetic first thing in the morning; others prefer to work out later in the day.
Using the full-stop rule above, try replacing these semicolons with full stops:
- Blend your leafy greens with some water and fruit. You can then drink them raw to get maximum nutritional benefits.
- Some folks are most energetic first thing in the morning. Others prefer to work out later in the day.
Still makes sense, right?
For this rule to work, there must be a full sentence clause on either side of the semicolon. Without getting too technical about it, a sentence clause is a complete thought. Often, a clause can stand alone as a sentence in its own right (that’s called an independent clause). In more complex sentences there are two or more clauses. Consider whether the words on either side of the semicolon function as complete thoughts, and you’ll be on the right track.
Another good way to test whether you’re doing it right is to replace the semicolons with and:
- Blend your leafy greens with some water and fruit and you can then drink them raw to get maximum nutritional benefits.
- Some folks are most energetic first thing in the morning and others prefer to work out later in the day.
B. To separate items in a list.
The second most common use of the semicolon is to act as a separator when a comma is inadequate. When a list of two or more items appears in a sentence (rather than a bulleted or numbered list), it’s known as a run-on list. Sometimes the items in a run-on list contain commas themselves. Examples:
- I blended my kale with some apple, pear and ginger; a blend of powdered greens containing spirulina, chlorophyll and aloe; and a good handful of ice.
- Most of the marathon competitors were from Sydney, Australia; Auckland, New Zealand; and Bali, Indonesia.
In the above examples, commas are used as a soft pause between elements that are grouped together. The semicolon acts as a clear separator between the grouped elements.
To test whether the semicolons are being used correctly, reformat the run-on lists into bulleted lists, replacing each semicolon with a bullet:
- I blended my kale with:
- some apple, pear and ginger
- a blend of powdered greens containing spirulina, chlorophyll and aloe
- a good handful of ice.
- Most of the marathon competitors were from:
- Sydney, Australia
- Auckland, New Zealand
- Bali, Indonesia.
Looks good, yes?
The secret of using the semicolon on the web
Now that you have the full-stop rule and the bullet rule for testing your use of semicolons, should you start incorporating them more into your website, social media and email content?
In a word, no.
The secret of using semicolons on the web is to understand them, then ignore them. Sssshhhh, don’t tell the punctuation dinosaurs; they won’t like it. (Just for them, I threw in a bonus semicolon in the previous sentence.)
The truth is that semicolons are not very web-friendly. They’re also one of the few punctuation marks that are truly optional. You can get away with never using one if you don’t want to!
Take it from an editor – shorter sentences separated by full stops are better for the web than complex sentences joined by semicolons. And when it comes to lists, bullets and numbers make your online content about a thousand times more readable than a run-on list with lots of commas and semicolons. So when writing your health blog posts, newsletters, e-courses and social media content, minimise the semicolons or leave them out completely. (This post is one of the few times you’ll see me use semicolons online…even though I secretly love them.)
If you can use the semicolon with confidence, go ahead; just be mindful of using it sparingly. It’s a subtle yet powerful piece of punctuation that can definitely add flair and grace to print books, academic papers, formal reports and content where it’s important to display a professional grasp of written English. But in content that’s meant to appeal to the impatient, information-overloaded, caffeine and ADD-afflicted eyeballs of the interwebz?
Get editing help for your wellness business today.
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