Answers to Questions About Semicolons


Here are three questions readers posed about use of prepositions and our responses.

  1. This sentence showcases my burning semicolon question: “That’s a great trick; best I’ve seen in ages.” I know the second clause in it contains no subject (or noun), at least explicitly. I’m therefore wondering whether this sentence can take a semicolon — perhaps because the subject in the second clause is implied — or instead deserves an em dash because there’s no second subject at all.

The sentence, as you wrote it, is correct — as you mention, the subject is implicit — but the formality of the semicolon is at odds with the informality of the omission of the subject, so I’d opt for a breezy em dash instead.

  1. In the following sentence, should semicolons separate the three business segments?: “Its businesses are divided into three segments: Domestic Retail, Bakeries and Foodservice, and International.”

No, that’s a simple list with three simple elements. Even the addition of brief detail would not require semicolons, because the segments and their descriptions can be clearly delineated: “Domestic Retail, which includes merchandising through stores, Bakeries and Foodservice, which involves direct sales, and International, which deals with nondomestic buyers.” But when it would be obtrusive to repeat a structure such as “which (verb)” that clearly organizes the elements, use semicolons: “We invited our friends Jan and Dean; Fred and Wilma, the couple next door; and my brothers Greg, Peter, and Bobby and their wives.”

  1. So, a comma in place of a semicolon is wrong? I once read a book on crafting sentences that mentioned that a semicolon is never accepted in American fiction and that a comma can always do the work. I’ve been going by this standard, and I like the economy and simplicity of the comma compared to the clumsy, Britishy semicolon. Do you think I’m wrong?

A semicolon does seem intrusively formal for transcribing speech — whether within dialogue in fiction or when quoting a speaker — but replacing it with a period is erroneous, and the book’s advice is unfortunate. I recommend using an em dash or starting a new sentence instead.



About mjnickum

I am children's book writer and publisher. My publishing companies include Saguaro Books, LLC for middle grade and young adult fiction and The PTP Book Division of the Path to Publication Group, Inc, a nonprofit 501(c)3 company founded to promote literacy. The PTP Book Division publishes fiction and non fiction for adults.
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