Business Writing Tip #194 – The Semi-colon

Many of you may know the semi-colon as the symbol you use when you want to create a winking emoji, like this ;). But the semi-colon serves other purposes.wink emoji

It looks like a comma topped with a full stop. It creates a break, a separation, between ideas, that is stronger than a comma, but less than a full stop (or period, if you are using American English).

Two of the most common uses of the semi-colon are separating items in lists, and joining two sentences.

1. Separating items in lists, when some items in the list contain commas

Normally when we list items in a sentence we separate them with commas.

David, Jan and Christina will attend the presentation.

(Sometimes you will see David, Jan, and Christina will attend the presentation. This is not wrong. It’s just a usage variation.)

But what if we have:

  • David, Jan and Christina from ABC company
  • Ameer, Julia and Mario from XYZ company
  • Rosa, Michael and James from PQR company

And they’re all attending the presentation. We already have commas separating items, but we need to make sure we help our readers by making sure the sentence is clear. Look at:

David, Jan and Christina from ABC company, Ameer, Julia and Mario from XYZ company, and Rosa, Michael and James from PQR company will attend the presentation.

This sentence is ambiguous. We know that Jan and Christina are from ABC company, and Michael and James from PQR, but do we know which company David is from, or Ameer, or Rosa? We can probably make a good guess, but by using semi-colons we help our readers and they do not have to guess.

David, Jan and Christina from ABC company; Ameer, Julia and Mario from XYZ company; and Rosa, Michael and James from PQR company, will attend the presentation.

This sentence groups the people, making it clear which company they are from.

Another example:

The department purchased a colour printer; three PC and two Apple laptops; six new, adjustable desks, and six blue, ergonomic office chairs.

It’s easy to see how many items are in the list, and which words go together.

2. Joining two sentences

Have you heard of an independent clause? It is a group of words that can stand on its own. It is, in fact, a sentence. And sentences end with full stops. But sometimes, we might want to suggest a strong link between two independent clauses, or to put it another way, two sentences.

Example (a)

The purchasing manager placed an additional order today. She ordered new office furniture. Ergonomic chairs and adjustable-height desks were on sale.

This group of sentences is perfectly fine.

Example (b)

But you could write:

The purchasing manager placed an additional order today. She ordered new office furniture; ergonomic chairs and adjustable-height desks were on sale.

This second version suggests that the reason she ordered the furniture today is because these items were on sale.

The other reason we use semi-colons is for style. In example (a), we have three short sentences. Writing a string of short sentences can make the writing feel abrupt, or choppy. Mixing up sentence lengths usually makes writing more interesting to read.

So there you have it. Some information on semi-colons and how to use them. Dust them off and give them a try.

Happy writing.