The semicolon is not often used; most people aren't even sure how to use it.
What is this silly little punctuation mark good for anyway? Is it just some antiquated notion? Should we even bother teaching it to our students? My view is that if it’s in the English language, it should be brought to students’ attention because they’re bound to come across it at some point. But it’s also our job as teachers to point out which conventions are no longer commonly used, which is indeed the case with the semicolon.
1. What is the semicolon used for?
The semicolon is used to join two sentences together, so it is useful for connecting ideas and making sentences more complex. It can take the place of a period or a conjunction such as “and.” The semicolon should connect two sentences with similar or related ideas. Let’s look at some examples:
- He was tired. He was up all night studying.
- He was tired; he was up all night studying.
- BUT NOT: He was tired; it was raining. (unrelated ideas)
- She was a great student, and she got a prestigious scholarship.
- She was a great student; she got a prestigious scholarship.
Don’t forget to point out the punctuation of transition words to your higher-level students. With transition words, a period or a semicolon must be used. Here are some examples:
- I forgot to study for the test. In addition, I forgot to bring a pencil.
- I forgot to study for the test; in addition, I forgot to bring a pencil.
- The professor didn’t make us write the test. However, he gave us a lot of homework.
- The professor didn’t make us write the test; however, he gave us a lot of homework.
2. Should we teach and/or use the semicolon?
In formal writing (academic, scientific, etc.), the semicolon may be used. If you have formal essay writing in class, you could get your students to try using the semicolon. If your students are in university or taking a university prep class, it’s a good idea to teach and use it, especially if they’re using transition words in their writing. But make sure you also tell students when NOT to use it: in emails, text messages, instant messaging, etc. I think it would even look out of place in business letters or job applications. So bring it up, yes, but remind students that the semicolon is very formal, and a little out of fashion. One of these days, I’ll write a blog post about my favourite punctuation mark, the interrobang. Now THAT’S useful?!