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I completed my novel and an editor friend graciously offered to assist me with formatting. As a former scientist, I am more familiar with technical or academic writing, so formatting fiction can be a challenge. My friend stripped out my semicolons and replaced most with a simple period. I asked why, was I using them inappropriately? I know they are used to separate independent but linking clauses, why make two short complete sentences when one will suffice? She laughed and said they are fine if you are a dead British writer, other than that they are used infrequently at best in modern fiction writing. Academics and technical writers are more prone to their usage by the nature of their writing.

This prompted me to do independent research to confirm her advice and I found this gem:

You are allowed one semicolon in your entire working life as a novelist. You can use more than that if you insist, but quite honestly you have a disease that should be treated and I refuse to be an enabler for you. https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2010/07/16/correctly-formatting-your-novel-manuscript/

Funny, but seriously? So I hunted a bit more then found Grammar Girl also has a great post on the usage of semicolons. She quotes no less of an authority than Kurt Vonnegut:

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/vonneguts-famous-semicolon-advice-was-taken-out-of-context

Huh? Her article continues to explain that Vonnegut was engaged in hyperbole, but it remains vague if he actually shunned the usage of semicolons when he stated this:

He ends any lingering doubt when he uses a semicolon later in the essay and then writes,

*And there, I’ve just used a semicolon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules.

Are semicolons only allowed in technical or academic writing?

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    I've been told in person within my critique groups that people 'do not like semicolons.' Oddly, I've also been told my sentence length is not varied enough (Likely another side effect of scientific writing), and so I am now linking some sequential sentences with 'and.' I just counted in my 96K word story - I thought I only had a few semicolons but it looks like I have 39. That seems excessive even to me. – DPT Dec 13 '17 at 15:17
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    Longer sentences (because the short ones are easy): I've been watching how the other authors do it lately. Scientists are trained to use language efficiently and are brains become wired to it. That can be a strength. I'm looking within the books I'm reading for longer sentences that maintain their 'value' (i.e. are not just 'more words') and slowly 'getting it.' It's through the use of proper phrasing, and ways to add in important nuance. It's remarkable, and not scientific writing at all. – DPT Dec 13 '17 at 15:52
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    "…they are transvestite hermaphrodites…" transgenderphobic and intersex-phobic individuals perhaps do not have a great deal of moral authority. – user28426 Dec 13 '17 at 23:56
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    @AndreKR Not like that. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Dec 14 '17 at 17:43
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Bollocks. (That's a technical term.) The semicolon is the correct punctuation for a particular kind of sentence structure. So on the face of it, if you want to outlaw something, it should be that sentence structure, not the punctuation that is necessary to it.

But this is one of those rules like kill all the adverbs. Many writers today do not give sufficient attention to the quality of their prose. They are all about getting their plot down on paper and are negligent of their prose and its effects. One of the most obvious ways this shows up is as the sloppy use of adverbs. But merely cutting out all the adverbs won't make your prose better. And substituting exotic verbs for simple verbs, as some anti-adverb crusaders recommend, won't make it better either. In fact, it will make it more pretentious. If you train yourself to be a good prose stylist, if you pay attention to the quality of your prose as you write, you will use adverbs appropriately where they are needed.

Similarly, people who don't pay attention to their prose often end up writing convoluted sentences that are hard to read and then try to fix them with punctuation. If you get down to semicolons in this attempt to punctuate a broken sentence it is a good sign your sentence needs to be rewritten. In fact, I would state it as an axiom that if you have any question about how to punctuate a sentence, you should probably rewrite the sentence, and, quite possibly, the entire paragraph. But really great sentences can sometimes require semicolons and taking out all the semicolons will make the great sentences worse but it won't make the bad sentences better.

Any rule that makes an enemy of any part of speech or any punctuation mark is bollocks. Great prose stylists use them all. To determine if an adverb or a semicolon is appropriate in a particular sentence, you have to look at the overall quality of the prose. Adverbs and semicolons may be relatively rare in good prose, but they have their place and are something essential to felicity of expression.

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    Here is an example where I used TWO semicolons: . “Oh, I’m sorry Doctor; I haven’t looked yet. Lian went on break, and I’ve been starting IVs for her. I sent the labs as I drew them; let me see if any are back.” Elaine tore off her gloves then thumbed through a stack of papers. I have no problem with the above, but then I read this the following post: – Richard Stanzak Dec 13 '17 at 14:44
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    Ben MacIntyre, columnist in The Times (London), wrote: "Americans have long regarded the semi-colon with suspicion, as a genteel, self-conscious, neither-one-thing-nor-the other sort of punctuation mark, with neither the butchness of a full colon nor the flighty promiscuity of the comma. Hemingway and Chandler and Stephen King wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with a semi-colon (though Truman Capote might). Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don’t use semi-colons." Wow, it is hard to believe that punctuation could elicit such hatred. – Richard Stanzak Dec 13 '17 at 14:45
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    @RichardStanzak Your semicolon examples are correct (as you know) but strike me as something that could be rewritten. The second is more jarring to me than the first, which looks like professional language (i.e. appropriate to the nurse). As a side note my commas are past promiscuous (I learned two weeks ago. Every pause in my mind became a comma on the page. The reader doesn't need a running commentary of where my mind pauses. I would ask the editor whether dashes or ellipses could replace some of your semicolons. They are right out in scientific writing but may be appropriate here. – DPT Dec 13 '17 at 15:25
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    " it tells the reader when and where a character is being careful about their speech pattern" - only if the reader is familiar with your intention. A semicolon isn't widley recognized as dialouge pause imo......ellipsis or em dash are what you are looking for that would better indicate to the average reader what your characters are doing. – NKCampbell Dec 13 '17 at 18:27
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    Worth my upvote for the third paragraph alone. However, I fear many won't read that far, and just skip merrily off thinking "He said its OK to use semicolons with abandon!" Shame you couldn't somehow have led with that paragraph. I find semicolons are like "gotos" and recursion in programming; an expert knows when and where to use them, but for everyone else "don't ever use them" isn't really horrible advice. – T.E.D. Dec 14 '17 at 0:58
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I myself have been criticised on at least one occasion for using too many semicolons in my writing. I hadn't noticed at the time, but I really was overusing them. It's one of the quirks of my writing style that I now try and consciously tone down, along with starting dialogue paragraphs with "the character did this" and my inability to go three pages without someone making some kind of witty or sarcastic remark.

My use of semicolons in fiction writing is generally limited to descriptive paragraphs, where run-on sentences are more acceptable. Often, I end up with two short sentences describing the same object; a semicolon is a neat way of linking them together without resorting to "and". (See?)

The only hard-and-fast rule I have when using semicolons is that I limit myself to one per paragraph. This stops me from overloading my descriptions with them and forces me to vary my sentence structure more to keep things interesting. But in general, I see nothing wrong with using semicolons. The trick, as with most things in writing, is not to overuse them.


EDIT: After a brief discussion in the comments, I'd like to add that it's also important to make sure you're using semicolons correctly. Part of the backlash against them is due to writers using them inappropriately. Semicolons are for linking related clauses, as I did in my example. They're not just fancy commas.

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    I hadn't noticed it either until I was called out on it - judging from your comments on Mark Baker's answer, it appears to be a primarily American thing. I think at least part of it may stem from writers using semicolons in inappropriate places. – F1Krazy Dec 13 '17 at 15:48
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    No. A semicolon does not indicate a pause. Neither does a comma. Both exist to indicate the grouping of words in phrases. Pauses sometimes don't hear same thing in speech, but that does not mean a comma indicates a pause. The thing that indicates a pause in writing is the word pause. – user16226 Dec 13 '17 at 15:58
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    @RichardStanzak The best punctuation to use for that (IMO) would be ellipses. Something like "Oh... I'm sorry, Doctor. I haven't looked yet because Lian went on break, and I've been starting IVs for her. I sent the labs as I drew them... let me see if any are back." – F1Krazy Dec 13 '17 at 16:40
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    @MarkBaker - "A semicolon does not indicate a pause. Neither does a comma." Thank you thank you thank you thank you. Punctuation is about sentence structure, not about how you should emote as you read. With too many commas I hear Shatner, in my, head. – Ken Mohnkern Dec 14 '17 at 14:16
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    @KenMohnkern Shatner's... speech patterns... when he played Kirk... are more... indicative... of ellipses. Spock actually used semi-colons when he spoke; having been raised on Vulcan, he was thoroughly educated in the correct grammar of Vulcan and "Standard" — whatever English is called on Classic Trek. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Dec 14 '17 at 17:47
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As with every element of style, it depends on context. In modern American fiction, semicolons are avoided; but trends do change, and old-fashioned modes of expression that were once considered effete affectations are coming back into fashion.

Personally, I love semicolons and use them frequently, but only in non-fiction, when I'm conveying complex conceptual content. I rarely (if ever) "hear" them in natural speech, and they seem excessive in most descriptive passages. They are really a conceptual marker rather than an oral one; and storytelling, much more than academic writing, relies on that strong narrative voice, even when not read aloud.

If you do use them, be aware that they will give your writing a professorial tone. I also wouldn't personally use them in the examples you gave in the comments (you might want to edit those into your question), so I would say that your friend has given you good advice.

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    @RichardStanzak It sounds like she is giving you excellent advice. – Chris Sunami Dec 13 '17 at 16:17
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    I was kind of wondering while reading this why you were basically to a large degree arguing against semicolons, then using them yourself. Then I reached the comments. :) – a CVn Dec 14 '17 at 14:31
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    They make sense for the kind of non-fiction I write; of which this answer is an example. However, I don't generally use them in fiction; which is what the original poster is talking about. However, they clearly can be easily overused even in the former... I'm much more in danger of overusing the em-dash however --both in my fiction and non-fiction! – Chris Sunami Dec 14 '17 at 15:04
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    @ChrisSunami +1 for correctly using the 3 resources mentioned throughout this page (semicolon, ellipsis and em-dash) in a single comment. ❤ – xDaizu Dec 14 '17 at 15:15
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    @xDaizu: I'm not sure I'd call all those correct. In fact, I assumed Chris Sunami was intentionally misusing them for sarcasm. – Adrian McCarthy Dec 14 '17 at 20:01
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I agree that flat-out banishment of any tool (adverbs, semicolons, etc.) is almost certainly wrong. Though many editors and agents will shake their heads if you use more than one or two semicolons in a novel. They are pretty far out of style.

Looking at your examples is instructive, though.

Semicolons seem particularly unnatural in dialogue. Nobody transcribing a conversation would ever give a moment's thought to using a semicolon; they're just going to write it as two sentences. The fact that those sentences are consecutive will typically be enough evidence that the ideas are closely linked (which is what the semicolon is supposed to mean, after all). If you read dialogue in popular mainstream fiction, you might also see the intentional use of a comma-splice as a way to run two short sentences together.

If you want/need a pause in the dialogue, don't use a semicolon. You need something that separates the ideas, which is the opposite of what a semicolon does.

As others have mentioned, an ellipsis can show hesitation or a trailing off of words. Dashes set off interruptions--either in the flow of an idea or in the literal case of a speaker being interrupted mid-sentence. A more significant pause, as you might have when a character collects their thoughts, can be indicated with a bit of business, like rifling through the files or pouring a drink.

It's easy to overdo pauses. Screenwriters are told, "Don't direct on paper." Let the actors/readers determine where most of the pauses go. Good dialogue rarely leans very heavily on punctuation. The right words in the right order go a long way. Save the explicit pauses for the really important moments. Less is more.

Outside of dialogue, the occasional, properly-used semicolon can give a passage an air of academic rigor. So, yeah, have at it in those passages.

  • Thanks for the comments. I had no idea many view the use of semicolons as being indicative of academic writing. I guess I took it for granted because before I started my novel, all I ever wrote was academic articles and books. I may consider their judicious use for another novel, but since this one is a military/medical thriller, my audience probably prefers less academia and more action. I love SE, this site is awesome because of people like you. – Richard Stanzak Dec 13 '17 at 23:50
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    "Nobody transcribing a conversation would ever give a moment's thought to using a semicolon; they're just going to write it as two sentences." Not to be "that guy" but I actually do. I associate it (maybe wrongfully) with a kind of pause-inflexion we sometimes do while speaking, kinda catching up with our train of thought (usually used to take air, too). It's.. hard to describe. Also, I use them while writing dialogue. I'm an RPG GM so I have to write a lot of dialogue that I have to read out loud later (more natural than giving a speech). The semicolon helps me to inflect and breath better. – xDaizu Dec 14 '17 at 15:08
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    It's weird (to me) to hear people talk of semicolons as a point to pause. To me, a semicolon suggests less of a pause than a period or a comma. In fact, I find sentences that have semicolons virtually require a pause soon after the semicolon, as with the "however" in sentences like this: "I don't enjoy watching sports with balls; race cars, however, get my blood pumping." – Adrian McCarthy Dec 14 '17 at 17:05
  • Perhaps a semicolon is where there is no pause but should be? I often use them when transcribing run–on sentences and the like. Such things occur very often in natural language and such speech, but literary grammar — which has no connotative inflection or nonverbal communication — needs rely on literary notation. It is of some interest that far fewer linguists than I would expect have ever described written and spoken language as two different dialects. – can-ned_food Dec 14 '17 at 19:21
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A semicolon is a complex beast:

  • You don't use it when you want an idea to stand on its own. You use a full stop for that.
  • You don't use it to tie two ideas closely together because if you did, you'd relate them with lighter punctuation like a comma.
  • You use it to relate two ideas weakly; it strongly implies there's a relationship between the two conjoined ideas but leaves it to the reader to determine what that implied relationship is.

As a result, it's difficult to use semicolons frequently without also using a slightly opaque writing style. When you use a semicolon, the fact that it clearly relates two clauses together without giving a direct indication what the relationship is necessarily forces your reader to read in-between the lines.

If you look at the list I gave above, the second bullet point relates its two clauses explicitly with the word because, allowing you to immediately understand that the second clause is related to the first due to providing an explanation for the first clause. In the third bullet point, the semicolon implies exactly the same relationship, but you are forced to read more carefully in order to understand that. You have to understand the two clauses separately, my implied context for writing this answer, and the parallelism in the entire list before you can be sure you correctly understand how the two halves of the sentence relate. It's not much more work, but it is more work nevertheless.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing because sometimes, that more opaque writing style is what you want. It's important to keep in mind that for writing fiction in particular, though, part of what you need to accomplish is making the task of reading your work pleasant and enjoyable for your readers. You typically want to write using a style that makes the semantic meaning of your story jump off of the page, allowing the reader to spend their mental energy on more sophisticated levels of your writing, such as the subtext in dialog or the thematic implications of characters' decisions. And, if possible, you want your writing to have a musical or poetic quality to it such that it "sounds good" in the reader's head.

Typically, a semicolon works counter to both of those goals. If you force a reader to spend some time figuring out whether your semicolon in, "I wanted to kill her; she had done so much to me," means that the speaker wants to kill her because of or in spite of what she had done, that's more work the reader has to do before getting back to reading in-between the lines of your story proper. And if you're trying to write with a musical quality, then forcing the reader to grind to a halt to understand a semicolon correctly can interrupt the rhythm (unless you're trying to get a slower effect).


All in all, though, these are definitely things to keep in mind at the level of being nitpicky. I would much rather read a story filled with semicolons, even awkward ones, that has compelling characters and themes than read a disjointed story with spotless prose. And every writer has their own style. Some people will never have occasion to use semicolons; others, like myself, will use them on occasion. You seem to like them, so more power to you!

When you finish your first few drafts of your story, you'll reach the point where the most important considerations aren't the structure or strength of the story proper, which have already been vetted and are largely set in stone, but rather getting the nuance and tone of each passage just so. This is the best time to consider the ideas of making your reading easy to approach and musical, and this is when you can really think carefully about each individual use of a semicolon. Until then, it's probably best to enjoy the story yourself as you discover it in the first couple drafts and not worry too much about the fine details of your prose, which you will thoroughly rework anyway.

  • One point I want to add, but that doesn't quite fit in my answer, is that semicolons van be more common in academic and technical writing because oftentimes, meeting formatting requirements - especially page limits - is more important than writing with an enjoyable style, so being able to cut even individual words can be useful. In this situation, using a semicolon to avoid using a conjunction like because or therefore that takes up a lot of space but doesn't add much semantic meaning is a smart decision. The priorities in writing fiction are different. – Kevin - Reinstate Monica Dec 15 '17 at 1:09
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    Here is my best use of a semicolon to date ;) – Richard Stanzak Dec 15 '17 at 1:53
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Semicolons are passé, as is writing with fountain pens and typewriters. Nothing really wrong with them, but the great majority of the reading and writing public has stopped understanding them or even wanting to. As they have ending sentences with prepositions.

By the way, research by academics studying various kinds of writing has found, repeatedly, that 7 words is about the most the general public reads in a paragraph before deciding whether to continue. And multiple sentences in a paragraph put most folks to sleep. Can't say that I blame them.

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  • Yes, but this is technical writing, and semicolons are fine in technical writing. – Guy Schalnat Dec 15 '17 at 16:21
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You mentioned using semicolons in dialog. As others have pointed out, this is usually unnatural. But it is instructive to understand why it feels unnatural.

In real life, people rarely speak in fully grammatical complete sentences. Real speech has filled pauses, abrupt changes of subject, sentence fragments, excess or insufficient connective tissue, and numerous other irregularities. If we actually wrote all of these things verbatim, our characters would read like idiots and our readers would put the book down after half a chapter. The written word lacks the intonation, body language, and other nonverbal communicative channels which make ordinary speech comprehensible.

So we summarize and condense. We rewrite the incomplete thoughts that a person would actually say into the complete sentences that our readers can comprehend. There is an art to this. Do it too lightly and you have all of the problems I described above. Do it too heavily and your characters read like a textbook, with no voice of their own. Different authors, and perhaps different characters, will strike different balances along this spectrum.

Enter the semicolon. A semicolon denotes a short pause, less than a period; it connotes a thematic or structural link between two complete sentences. When you find yourself inserting these "nicely linked up" sentences into a character's speech, you may have gone too far with summarizing and condensing. Your dialog no longer reads like something the character could have come up with on the spur of the moment. Instead, it reads like something they rehearsed in advance.

Of course, there are times when a semicolon in dialog is entirely fair. For example, a politician's planned speech may well contain a semicolon or two. Such speeches really are rehearsed in advance, so the semicolon enhances the verisimilitude of the character's speech pattern. But when that same politician gets off the stage, you should expect them to revert to more natural punctuation.

In conclusion, banishing individual parts of the language from our usage is unhelpful. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the implications of our choices while writing. Careful use of punctuation, diction, and tone of voice are just as important as, if not more important than, narrative considerations like plot and setting.

  • 'Your dialog no longer reads like something the character could have come up with on the spur of the moment. Instead, it reads like something they rehearsed in advance.' And that is why I restricted it to medical dialogue. Medical dialogue is very thoughtful for a reason, mistakes kill people. We pause often to think if our words are communicating EXACTLY what we mean. Enter the semicolon, but Mark Baker corrected me on using semicolons for pauses and others rightly suggested ellipses that are seldom used in academic or technical writing. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. – Richard Stanzak Dec 16 '17 at 19:31
  • @RichardStanzak: Have you been in an emergency room? I have not, but I work in a discipline where we encounter crises of a different variety. I assure you, our speech during incident response is just as unrehearsed as anyone else's. The emphasis is on getting the ideas right, not on getting the phrasing right. – Kevin Dec 17 '17 at 1:49
  • I worked in both the ER and ICUs nationwide for decades. I have to disagree with you. Our job was to PREVENT errors. We were expected to correct each other and we did. Humans have a 3% inherent error rate, we engaged in a process called error trapping that lowered the error rates even more. I never recall yelling out orders quickly like they do on TV, everything was measured and I literally wrote a book on this subject: amazon.com/Bottom-Line-Laymans-Guide-Medicine/dp/0875864562. Medicine had to learn the hard way how to improve communication. – Richard Stanzak Dec 17 '17 at 2:27
  • @RichardStanzak: We don't yell at my place of work either. Nobody speaks without thinking. But that's entirely different from planning out multiple sentences as in a speech. – Kevin Dec 17 '17 at 7:10
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    I guess it is the scientist in me, but we loved to frame our arguments prior to engaging others with our research. It was like a verbal duel where each hoped the other stumbled or misspoke on their facts. I actually miss it. ;) – Richard Stanzak Dec 18 '17 at 0:29
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I think most people just FEAR the semicolon!

Below is an excerpt from https://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

How to use a semicolon The most feared punctuation on earth.

skipping over WHY and HOW

WHEN - When should I use a semicolon? "I gnaw on old car tires; it strengthens my jaw so I'll be better conditioned for bear combat." Use a semicolon when you want to form a bond between two statements, typically when they are related to or contrast with one another. In the example above, the relationship between gnawing on tires and combatting bears is strengthened by using a semicolon. "I fought the bear and won. Also, I never kiss plague rats on the mouth." In this sentence, your victory against the bear does not need to be connected to the plague rat, so a period is used.

INTERNAL - Use a semicolon to connect sentences that contain internal punctuation. "When dinosaurs agree on something, they'll often high-five one another; dinosaurs are all about high fives." If you'd used a comma in the sentence, it would have resulted in a comma splice. If you'd used a period, you'd lose the connection between the two clauses.

SUPER - Use a semicolon as a super-comma. "While searching for a good place to get a unicorn burger, I travelled to Seattle, Washington, Tokyo, Japan; and London, England." Use a semicolon if you need to make a list of items that are separated with a comma. This often occurs when listing locations, names, dates, and descriptions.

Again, this brilliance is excerpted from The Oatmeal's Grammar Comics , but the basic concept is one I've agreed with. Semicolons are not fancy ; they're just another tool with a specific set of use cases, some of which are quite common.

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