Copy-wise: Semi-colons – use with care

Tony Hallett

Tony Hallett

Managing Director

October 17, 2016 5:15 pm

Semi-colons are fine for long lists, computer programmers and Mark Twain. While we have a lot of love for the latter two of those three, what we really mean is avoid them if possible.

Why? In short, they’re messy.

Semi-colon

They’re great for certain novelists and poets – oh the poetry! – and students of English literature will have encountered millions of them.

But in business writing, reportage and marketing they can confuse.

They confuse even if used as high school teachers instructed you, for example between two related sentences that can stand on their own as sentences or could otherwise be joined by words such as ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘yet’.

But in that case, we simply believe in using two separate sentences.
Many non-pros use them liberally (the Mark Twain affliction) or in place of the simple colon. Both these things make us feel a little queasy.

And as for the list exception? Stylistically, online there are quite a few ways to avoid them still. See how it works when you instruct Word or a similar word processor to put in bullet points?

But in a long list, follow this format:

There are few reasons to employ the semi-colon but Collective Content recommends:

–          when separating one long sentence from another in a list format, which can be in a single paragraph or when labelled 1, 2, 3 or a, b, c or such like;

–          when citing computer code verbatim; and

–          when being Samuel Clemens (aka Mr Twain), who remains wonderful in many ways to this day.

Note the word ‘and’ right before the final point. Semi-colons allow that and that’s a good thing, we often think. Also note that this structure should work when you are not able to make use of bullet points – the single, albeit very long, sentence option.

And colons? We love colons. For introducing quotations online and in reportage we consider them sharper than a comma.

For introducing lists – yes, that too.

Instead of a hyphen or the word ‘namely’? Sometimes and usually, we answer.

But that’s for another post in our grammar series.

This post was first published on 25 March 2013

Further reading:
http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon
http://www.videojug.com/film/how-to-use-colons-and-semi-colons

* photo credit: ilovememphis via photopin cc

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