In this new blog post series called Punctuation Pointers, I’m going to talk about the different punctuation marks found in academic writing. To start the series, I’m focusing on the semi-colon (also spelt semicolon) (;), which is a punctuation mark that many people find difficult to use.

1. Use the semi-colon to link closely related sentences

This is the most frequent use of the semi-colon. The writing style handbook New Hart’s Rules states the following:

‘The semi-colon marks a separation that is stronger than a comma but less strong than a full point. It divides two or more main clauses that are closely related and complement or parallel each other, and that could stand as sentences in their own right’ (New Hart’s Rules, 2005, p. 72).

The key point to draw from the above quotation is that the semi-colon is used to divide main clauses that are closely related and complement or parallel each other. Here’s an example sentence:

The view was beautiful from the top of the hill; the valley below was bathed in golden sunlight.

There are two independent (but related) clauses here that could be separated using a full stop. But for a more flowing sentence, it’s better to use the semi-colon to divide the clauses.

2. Use the semi-colon to separate items in a list

It’s good practice to use semi-colons to separate items in a list that contains many commas. This often makes the list easier to read and reduces the ambiguity that can occur if frequent commas are used. Here’s an example of this usage:

The presentations were given by Thomas Edlington, University of Newcastle; David Pearson, University of Hull; and Helen Turin, University of Sheffield.

Semi-colons are also frequently used in academic texts to separate authors cited in a bracketed list:

This has been discussed extensively in recent times (Fern, 2010; Jones, 2012; Taylor, 2014).

3. Use the semi-colon before a conjunctive adverb

Semi-colons are also used in sentences before conjunctive adverbs – e.g. therefore, furthermore, consequently, finally, however, on the other hand, nevertheless, indeed etc.

It has been suggested that attitudes to debt are changing; however, this has not yet been proven.

Examples of semi-colon usage in academic English

In academic texts, semi-colons can often be found in long sentences. I’ve included a few examples from my PhD thesis here to show how semi-colons can be used:

In both of these age distributions, there is the possibility of age grading, which involves particular patterns of linguistic change being correlated with a particular life-stage and then repeated in successive generations; issues concerning age grading will be discussed in more detail in Chapters 5 and 6 (Finnegan, 2011, p. 110).

In this example, the first independent clause is divided from the second by a semi-colon. Both clauses give information about the same topic: linguistic age grading.

This distribution suggests that female speakers originally introduced the closing diphthong variant into middle-class Sheffield English; the rate of change is the most marked between the older and middle-aged generations (Finnegan, 2011, p. 222).

Here, the second clause is again related to the first one and adds information about the linguistic change associated with female speakers.

In the 1960s, the work of William Labov and his colleagues (Labov 1963, 1966; Weinreich et al. 1968) marked the beginning of variationist sociolinguistics (Finnegan, 2011, p. 6).

Semi-colons are often used in academic texts to separate different authors in a list, as in this example.

In this blog post, I’ve shown the three main uses of semi-colons that you’re likely to come across in academic texts. I’d recommend using them sparingly – don’t pepper your writing with huge paragraph-length sentences where very complex clauses are divided by semi-colons. Keeping sentences to a manageable (and readable) length is very important. But provided you don’t overuse them, semi-colons help to improve the flow of your writing.

References

Ritter, R. M. (ed.) (2005). New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors, 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Finnegan, K. (2011). Linguistic stability, variation and change in middle-class Sheffield English. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield.

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