Licensed to Semicolon

August 4, 2016

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

― Kurt Vonnegut

With all due respect to transvestite hermaphrodites, I like semicolons. How else is a

writer to wink at his friends? ; )

But I realize I’m in the minority. Some of you detest emoticons. Others simply detest

semicolons. Here’s what a friend—who not only has been to college but now teaches

university-level journalistic writing—has to say about the eyes in a winky emoticon:

“Semicolons have got to be the most misused piece of punctuation. I like to joke

there ought to be a semicolon license. People would only get a license if they could

pass a test to prove they know how and when to properly use them.  Of course,

semicolons don’t kill people, but people who misuse semicolons kill their writing.”

There is no doubt most would fail the professor’s test and either be ticketed for

punctuating without a license or arrested for murdering the English language.

I took to Twitter to see what the masses are saying about the semicolon.

High-schooler @nicolekiluk is more mature than she knows:

“maturity to me, is admitting to myself that I will never be able to use a semicolon with confidence,” she tweeted.

Although one hopes @nicolekiluk will capitalize and use commas with confidence someday, her teen attitude on semicolons could put her on the verge of collecting Social Security. I base that on what @boothair tweeted:

“I'm almost 60, and I still; don't know where a damn semicolon goes in a sentence.”

So, for @nicolekiluk, @boothair, and everyone in-between, let’s review semicolon etiquette. There are basically three uses:

  1. To link two independent and related clauses. Independent is key here. If each clause cannot stand on its own as a sentence, use a comma, not a semicolon. Related is also key. The second independent clause continues the thought of the first clause. An example from the Chicago Manual of Style: “Though a gifted writer, Miqueas has never bothered to master the semicolon; he insists that half a colon is no colon at all.”
  2. To separate items in a complex list. Here’s an example from Grammar Monster: “I have been to Newcastle, Carlisle, and York in the North; Bristol, Exeter, and Portsmouth in the South; and Cromer, Norwich, and Lincoln in the East.”
  3. In a winky emoticon.

And that’s it. So use them sparingly, but do use them. For, as @BigDaveSmith tweeted, “There's something generally arousing about the proper use of a semicolon.”

; )

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They'll APPLAUD! Reach him at