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Thursday Tip: Using semicolons to link closely related ideas

March 8, 2012

Starting with and, but, or or opens a sentence swiftly. Sometimes, however, two clauses are best joined more subtly. For that, there are semicolons, the subject of this week’s Tip.

Semicolons can join independent clauses (either would be a sentence on its own) without using a conjunction, binding two or three closely related ideas. Ideally, the clauses are parallel in construction. Semicolons signal a pause longer than a comma, but shorter than a period.

Some writers use them to link closely related clauses in a paragraph, to distinguish them from more loosely related clauses and ideas. Here’s an example from Michael Powell and Michael Cooper’s ‘For Giuliani, a Dizzying Free Fall‘ in the New York Times:

But politics does not march to a military beat; it is a business of shifting loyalties. By Tuesday night, even those voters who rated terrorism as the most important issue were as likely to vote for Mr. Romney or Mr. McCain as for Mr. Giuliani. And those who had voted early for Mr. Giuliani now felt a sense of irrelevance.

Or consider this example:

Alarm on Wall Street is business as usual; alarm verging on panic at the Federal Reserve is more difficult to shrug off.

That’s Clive Crook showcasing a semicolon at its best–slamming together two parallel ideas and constructions–in his blog entry, ‘The politics of recession.’

Our standard disclaimer (use flourishes too often and you’ll risk annoying your reader) applies to semicolons with particular force. Joining independent clauses with semicolons is a judgment of meaning and nuance–so some writers throw them in at every opportunity. Try to be more judicious.

Note

This usage differs from semicolons in series. There, semicolons segment complex or nested elements to avoid tangling the reader in commas:

I ate cereal and an apple for breakfast; a cheeseburger, fries, and a salad for lunch; and pasta with meatballs for dinner.

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