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June 26, 2017
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she looks at how to properly use semicolons.

Dear Editor:

I have never understood how to use semicolons properly­, so I rarely use them in my writing. I know I’m not the only one confused about this. I was talking to a professional writer friend the other day and he pleaded ignorance as well.

It can’t be as complicated as it seems. Can it? Can you explain semicolons in a way I can actually understand? Please!
        —Marlene

Semicolons can be pesky little things. Lots of people have trouble figuring out when and how to use them, including me, until now.

The fact is, there are only two ways to use a semicolon in formal writing in English. The first and most common is to separate what could otherwise be two complete, closely related sentences. For example: “Sam’s brand new Maserati didn’t start this morning; it was out of gas,” or “I never use semicolons; I don’t understand them,” or “Addie loves listening to Bach; it soothes her soul.”

The second is to separate items in a series, where one or more of the items has internal punctuation, such as “Kristin, the flautist; Harry, the pianist; and John, the guitarist, gave the best performances of their lives.”

That’s it. Maybe it’s not so complicated after all.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks, coauthor of The Self-Publishers Ultimate Resource Guide, and the former editor-in-chief of William Morrow.

If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.

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