Scholarly Uses of the Semicolon
Although some writers would do away with the semicolon, arguing that it serves no useful purpose in English prose, there can be no doubt that the semicolon performs many important functions for scholarly authors. The trick lies in knowing when to use it and how to use it well to meet the requirements of publisher guidelines and achieve the high standard of clarity and sophistication required in successful academic and scientific writing. Not all of the following tips will apply in all cases, but many are generally applicable and others will point authors with some precision to uses that may be mentioned in whatever guidelines must be followed.
• A semicolon is used to join two independent clauses that could be two separate sentences were they separated by a full stop. The semicolon suggests a closer connection between the two clauses than a full stop can, and it also enables a more concise style because there is no need to repeat nouns and other main words in a way that is often necessary in a new sentence. For example, ‘The student hurried to the library; it was usually quiet at that hour.’
• A semicolon can also be used to punctuate two independent clauses that are connected by a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase that propels the argument forward, such as ‘however’ or ‘on the other hand.’ Although independent clauses linked by a conjunction such as ‘and’ or ‘but’ usually require no more than a comma, a semicolon can be used in such situations if the clauses are long, complex or already make use of commas.
• A semicolon can resolve two common errors in English prose: run-on sentences and comma splices. In the first, two independent clauses sit back to back without any punctuation at all, and adding a semicolon between the two clauses will usually resolve the problem, particularly with a little rewording. In the second, the two independent clauses are separated by a comma, and replacing it with a semicolon generally solves the problem, though a little revision may again be necessary.
• A semicolon can be used to avoid placing at the beginning of a sentence a numeral or symbol or any element of prose that would be awkward or inappropriate in that position. For example, ‘Although we approached an equal number of men and women, the men were not as responsive; 173 women agreed to take part in the study, but only 107 men agreed to participate.’ Were a full stop used before the ‘173’ in this example, that second sentence would begin with the numeral, and the alternative of writing the first number out in words would mean that the second should be written out as well. Either way, the result would be awkward, but using the semicolon enables a concise and scholarly style.
• Semicolons are often used to punctuate series and lists when commas will not serve. This is usually the case when each item is long and complicated, and especially when one or more of the elements is already punctuated with commas. In such cases, the semicolons clearly establish the divisions between items and clarify the author’s meaning, so semicolons are a good choice when there is any concern that the material may prove confusing or overwhelming for readers.
• Semicolons are used to separate items when providing a wide variety of scholarly information in parentheses. Statistical data (for the men, the scores were 24 and 55; for the women, 23 and 54), in-text references (Jones, 2003; Smith, 2006; Taylor, 2012), citations in notes (Hardman, ‘Presenting the Text’; Olson, ‘Romancing the Book’; Smith, ‘Close Reading’), definitions in table notes (ANOVA = analysis of variance; CI = confidence interval; ES = effect size), credit acknowledgements (We made extensive use of the collections belonging to the Lincoln Cathedral Library; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the University Library, Cambridge; and the Worcester Cathedral Library), keywords and other material relevant to advanced research are clearly and concisely presented for readers through the use of semicolons.
• Semicolons are also used in the complete bibliographical references that appear at the end of scholarly documents. Precise placement depends on publisher or style manual guidelines, but a semicolon is sometimes used, for instance, between the name of the publisher and the date of publication for books, or between the degree and the university when citing theses (D.Phil.; University of York: 1998).
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