The semi-colon (;) has to be one of the most confounding punctuation marks in the English language. An early strategy of mine – in the days when I lacked the motivation to look-up any rules – had been to avoid using them altogether. A full stop, or so I thought, would have done the same job equally well. So, what business did I have making life more difficult than it already was by messing about with semi-colons? Why take the trunk road when you could take the PLUS highway and break existing speed-limit laws in relative comfort?
Like the trunk road, the semi-colon makes the trip more lively and vivid. Used correctly, semi-colons make our writing seem less like a boring, soporific trip on an expressway and more like a stimulating, colourful drive down a scenic country road. The question is: how exactly do we use them correctly? Surprisingly, the rules are not difficult to learn.
In principle, the semi-colon is used to establish a connection between complete sentences that the author feels are closely related to each other. It joins complete sentences that the author feels ought to be related in some way. The most celebrated example of the use of semi-colons is perhaps:
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
In the example above, the semi-colon could easily be replaced by a full stop. For example:
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
Has the meaning changed? Probably not. But by replacing the semi-colon with a full stop, the feel of the sentence has been altered. The use of the semi-colon (as compared to the full stop) made the writing feel more alive; it made the message move vivid – less clinical, even
But take note that the semi-colon can only join complete sentences. If one of the sentences (either the one preceding it or the one following it) is not a complete sentence, a semi-colon must never be used. Try a different punctuation mark. It would be wrong, for example, to use the semi-colon in the following way:
Upon crossing the finish line; Mat Salo earned the ninth spot in a field fifty racers.
I know little about politics; precious little.
The following, however, would be correct:
Bangkai started a blog called ‘Rick’s Café’ in 2005; ‘What! No Tea and Scones?’ only came online two years later.
Nasi kandar is widely acknowledged to originate from Penang; cincalok is known as a Melaka delicacy; lontong is a dish that somehow tastes better when taken in Johor.
Another use of the semi-colon would be to indicate a pause and make a sentence that contains a formidable number of commas much easier to digest. Consider the following:
In the race, where only the fittest survived, Ali, the crowd favourite, failed to finish, and his supporters, sad, miserable and dejected, went home even before the race was over.
You could make the sentence easier to digest (and clearer) by writing it this way:
In the race, where only the fittest survived, Ali, the crowd favourite, failed to finish; and his supporters, sad, miserable and dejected, went home even before the race was over.
To make things clearer, it would be a good idea to compare the semi-colon to the colon. Consider the following sentences.
Jamilah felt ill. Mat was unbuckling his belt.
Written in this way, using two separate sentences, there is no suggestion that these two events are in any way related. They are two separate events that are taking place at (possibly) the same time.
But written with a semi-colon, our understanding of the situation would change. For example:
Jamilah felt ill; Mat was unbuckling his belt.
These two sentences are now related. Something had made Jamilah ill and, at the same time, also caused Mat to unbuckle his belt. Perhaps they had both succumbed to a bout of food poisoning.
Again, our understanding changes if we replace the semi-colon with a colon. For example:
Jamilah felt ill: Mat was unbuckling his belt.
Here, we are told why Jamilah felt ill. She felt ill because she saw Mat unbuckling his belt and probably knew what was coming. Whether Mat is a wife-beater or a rapist (or both), I leave to your imagination.
From the examples above, it would appear that the semi-colon has the power to colour our writing. Confusing it with a colon can be disasterous. On the other hand, you could simply plonk a full stop and get away with it. But thoughtful use of the semi-colon will make your writing that much more interesting.