The prefix semi- means “half,” but it attaches to many words with the sense of “partially,” “incompletely,” or “somewhat.” For example, semiconscious means you only have a partial grasp of your surroundings. A semiretired person is still working, albeit less than full time. Should you conclude that a semicolon is a half-baked colon? Is it inferior to other punctuation? By way of review, a colon is a punctuation mark that looks like two dots, one on top of the other. The semicolon looks like a dot on top of a comma. Before you judge, let’s weigh the pros and cons of using semicolons in your writing.

Pro: Semicolons are functional.

Semicolons show the reader that two sentences relate to each other. Consider this example:
Most people often get gifts from loved ones; Elizabeth received no gifts this year. In this sentence, the semicolon indicates a close connection between the two sentences. The reader may wonder why Elizabeth didn’t receive any gifts this year and whether this is a change from last year. Letting your readers know that they should mentally connect two sentences may serve some literary purpose.

Pro: You can use semicolons to avoid confusion in a list of items.

Semicolons can separate items in a list when the items are long or contain internal punctuation. Last year, Elizabeth received exactly three gifts: a paperweight, the generic gift her boss gave to all the employees; a bouquet of roses, the standard gift her husband always gave; and a book of poetry from her mother. Without the semicolons, the reader could easily lose count of the gifts and their corresponding descriptions.

Tattoo artists are receiving an unusual request from some clients. To draw attention to the importance of mental health and suicide prevention, some people are getting tattoos of semicolons. Why semicolons? As the Project Semicolon website explains, “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life.” Founder Amy Bleuel began the nonprofit organization in 2013 after a personal loss. Read more on the Grammarly blog.

Con: Semicolons encourage unnecessarily long sentences.

In the preceding example, we learn about a lot of Elizabeth’s presents from last year . . . in one sentence. Why not divide the lengthy sentence into two or three shorter ones? Last year, Elizabeth received exactly three gifts. Her boss gave her and her fellow employees paperweights. Her husband gave her the usual bouquet of roses. And her mother gave her a poetry book. Wasn’t the same information conveyed in shorter sentences?

Con: Some people, even writers, view semicolons as pretentious.

Often quoted on this issue is Kurt Vonnegut, who advised creative writers to avoid semicolons completely, saying that “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” He indicates that he might be joking in the same quote, but plenty of other writers think he has a point. They argue that the average reader doesn’t necessarily understand their use. You might consider whether semicolons could alienate your target audience, making your writing seem out of their league.

Con: Lots of people use them incorrectly.

The more often people see a certain punctuation mark, the more likely they are to use it freely. Unfortunately for semicolons, people may sprinkle them liberally through their writing without any real sense of how they function. Should we take a lesson from the comma? If semicolons become as popular as commas are, we might see an increase in bad usage habits. If you want to test your mastery of semicolon use, try an online quiz. Don’t be ashamed to consult a grammar handbook first to brush up on your knowledge!

You heard the pros and the cons. What do you think? In 1494, Italian printer Aldus Manutius the Elder first printed the semicolon. One of his motives was to connect interdependent statements. The semicolon still connects closely related independent clauses. It helps avoid ambiguity between list items. It’s even a symbol for an important cause. On the other hand, not a lot of people know how to use it correctly. Semicolons could potentially drive a wedge between author and audience. Do you think the risk is worth the reward?