Pausing to Punctuate: Semi-colons


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.


8 thoughts on “Pausing to Punctuate: Semi-colons

  1. i remember rick’s cafe; it was a fabulous blog too.

    and thank you for entertaining my request on the correct usage of colons and semi-colons.

    i am semi-comatose now.


    Always happy to oblige, ma’am

  2. Mat

    A semi colon is like a fullstop but not quite. It’s like an unconsummated thing.

    You want to join but you can’t or won’t. Then you plonk the comma with a tiny dot on top and the sentences are joined. And you wonder whether they should be two separate sentences with a bloody dot in between. Am I making sense here?

    The Kadhi would be angry with you for talking non-consummation yet showing indecision in front of him!

    I got to comment first this time, ei? Cheers.

    Dry Humour

    “A semi-colon is like a full stop, but not quite.”

    What a wonderful way of describing a semi-colon! I wish I had thought of that. You’re a smart one, mate!

    Yes, sir! Semi-colons are naughty that way: give rise to khalwat (of sentences) more than anything else.

  3. bangun…

    *sounds of chairs squealing over the floor*

    terima kasih cikgu…


    hehe not being sarcastic, but really… now i know.


    Thank you, sir! I am glad you found what I wrote useful.

  4. Bravo AbgKai, again you’ve illustrated very well the power of punctuations: very useful for untutored amateurs like me; however you’ve not mentioned whether colons and semi-colons can be used in the same sentence.

    Love the Jamilah and Mat examples.


    But I, too, am an untutored amateur; and a cad to boot.

    Of course you can have colons and semi-colons in the same sentence, ma’am. It’s a bit too complicated for the likes of me, but it can be done; there is no rule – at least, none that I know of – that forbids it.

    Jamilah and Mat are cute, aren’t they?

  5. “The question is: how exactly do we use them correctly? ”

    Believe it or not, you could have gotten away with “The question is, How exactly do we use them?”

    At any rate, this is probably the first time I’ve ever seen a colon follow an inflection of the verb “to be” in an article about proper punctuation.

    Color me surprised.


    Hmm… that makes both of us. Regional usage can be a funny thing sometimes. Thanks for pointing this out.

  6. Hi Matt,

    I see that you are still living your “To Sir With Love” fantasy 😉 😉 😉

    Well this is for you & all your smitten Lulu students;

    Ahhh but my all time favourite Lulu’s hit is;

    Please excuse my short attention span.


    Fuzzy feeling Tommy

    P/S – Sorry Sir, Sex ate my homework…….kakaka…


    I actually lived that fantasy once when I was a history teacher back in – oh, it was too long ago! When it was time for me to leave (no, it’s not what you think; I had to go and continue my studies), the school’s AV club screened ‘To sir, with love’. It was kind of touching. Maybe I should have stayed, eh?

  7. Sorry for messing up your comments section. The more u tried to fix it, the worst it gets. Yeah, ever had one of those days where u wished u had stayed in bed? Even Sex had lost it’s appetite 😉


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