Semicolons: Worth the Risk?

This weekend was lots of fun. I saw some friends and got outside.

This weekend was lots of fun; I saw some friends and got outside.

Today I'm eager to get back to work. Taking a real weekend really gets me motivated.

Today I'm eager to get back to work; taking a real weekend really gets me motivated.

What do you notice about the sentence comparisons above? Do you feel like there's a difference between using periods versus using semicolons?

Period Versus Semicolon: What, really, IS the difference?

While the period separates thoughts, the semicolon brings them together. This means the two punctuation marks actually give us different types of information. While the period will leave the thoughts on their own, the semicolon will actually add meaning by implying the sentences connect in a particular way.

By telling the reader the relationship between the two ideas, the semicolon tells us more without causing us to add words to explain that relationship. Thus, the semicolon is the friend of concision.

Since High-Value Writing's all about providing intentional, targeted meaning that works for our readers, the semicolon can be a useful tool in our arsenals. Let's consider this in relation to the sentences at the start of this letter:

  • Sentences about the weekend While the first example tells us the weekend was fun and tells us what I did, the second example adds some hidden meaning, through its semicolon: examples of what this weekend entailed. We also learn the weekend was fun largely because I saw friends and got outside. Readers now know some additional information: I consider things fun when they include friends and the outdoors. We didn't learn any of that with the first pair—the sentences separated by the period.

  • Sentences about getting back to work Similarly, while the example using the period mentions I'm excited while also saying the weekend motivated me, the example with the semicolon tells us more: the fun weekend, getting away from work thoughts for a couple days, in some ways contributed to or even caused today's motivation.

If Semicolons are so handy, why don't we use them more?

All my years of talking with business and school writers has shown me how many of us feel about the semicolon: too risky. It's the punctuation mark that feels easiest to mess up.

In reality, though, we only need to check two things when we want to use a semicolon:

  • Are the two sentences on either side of the semicolon related in content or ideas?

  • Are the two sentences on either side of the semicolon actually sentences? This means they each need to have their own subject + verb — their own doer + action.

Worth the Risk!

Semicolons help us write with meaning and intention, and they help us write concisely. Try using semicolons to convey more information in less space, in one of these three ways:

  • Use a semicolon to provide an example: You'll learn a lot at the benefits fair; we'll cover types of coverage as well as tier options.

  • Use a semicolon to convey cause and effect, or share a reason: Sorry we were late to the session; our 10am meeting ran over five minutes.

  • Use a semicolon to further explain an idea: The new manager's going to do great; her experience fits our needs perfectly.

Because semicolons helps us say more in fewer words, I'd encourage you to take the risk and start using them to convey the relationships between ideas. Readers like to know how things connect, and we can tell them this information without added words, by using the semicolon to add meaning while cutting fluff.

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