Advanced Business Writing
Punctuation and Grammar

Semicolons

Do not fear the semicolon. The semicolon is your friend. It does not make your writing more formal; it makes your writing more clear.

"The colon points to things, while the semicolon joins things." Okay, that's helpful, but why should we join things? In this lesson, we entertain three reasons for joining things with a semicolon: unity, juxtaposition, and rest. All three have to do with ease of reading.

Unity

Show the reader that two thoughts are closely related by combining them instead of listing them separately. Consider the following three versions of two related thoughts:

An industrious person will take on a hard job; a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.

An industrious person will take on a hard job, while a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.

An industrious person will take on a hard job. A lazy person will find an easy way to do it.

The first version clearly unifies the thoughts. It's compact and engaging, a visual seesaw with the semicolon as fulcrum.

The second version links the thoughts but also separates them a little bit, visually. The word while can sound rather formal, but more importantly, it can suggest to readers the alternate meaning of "happening at the same time" (coincident versus contrasting). More on that in a later lesson.

The third version lists two thoughts. First one. Then the other. Readers won't know the thoughts are related until halfway through the second sentence. And they have to mentally think back to the prior sentence to understand what it is referring to.

Note: Using a semicolon this way is easier to justify when the sentences to be combined have similar structure, i.e., parallel construction.

Juxtaposition

Help the reader see how things are related, or different, by stacking them side by side. When you have several related sentences that are similar in structure, they are often begging to be lined up and compared.

Many of last year's elections in New Jersey were decided on local issues. In Trenton, for example, the voters elected a mayor who promised to knock down vacant houses. In Newark, the incumbent focused on trading variances to get larger set asides for affordable housing. Paterson elected a newcomer who promoted a clear plan for improving accountability for basic services.
[okay]

Many of last year's elections in New Jersey were decided on local issues. In Trenton, for example, the voters elected a mayor who promised to knock down vacant houses; in Newark, the incumbent focused on trading variances to get larger set asides for affordable housing; Paterson elected a newcomer who promoted a clear plan for improving accountability for basic services.
[better]

Both paragraphs are correct and clear. The second one, however, is easier to read. Think of it this way: in the first paragraph, you hop from sentence to sentence; in the second paragraph you glide.

Rest

Give the reader a break when you write long or complex sentences:

With the many options available, customers usually choose a product closest in price to their initial budget, and when they choose a product new to them they usually select options they never would have selected before, even though what they get may seem, much to their chagrin, not quite what they expected.

The sentence is free of errors in punctuation. But with a semicolon added, it can take a bit less mental effort to read it and understand it:

With the many options available, customers usually choose a product closest in price to their initial budget; and when they choose a product new to them they usually select options they never would have selected before, even though what they get may seem, much to their chagrin, not quite what they expected.

It helps the reader if you keep the conjunction and in this case. It's a breather, a pause that lets the reader know that one thought is completed and a related thought follows. Remember, easy reading is the goal. Of course other things can help, like rewriting the sentence or omitting fun things that aren't necessary, such as the chagrin comment.

Note: Some experts will tell you that writers rarely end one sentence with a semicolon and begin the next with a coordinating conjunction. Ignore them.

Lesson: Semicolons
Module: Punctuation and Grammar
Course: Advanced Business Writing