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7.22 The Semicolon, Between independent clauses

The semicolon is used between independent clauses not joined by a co-ordinating conjunction but too closely related to be separated by a period:

  • Inflation makes misery unanimous; it is universal poverty.
    —Arthur Meighen
  • When I was younger I used to worry about having enough money for my old age; now I worry about having enough old age for my money.
    —Helen Stimpson
  • In theory the Commons can do anything; in practice, it can do little.
    —John Turner

If the clauses are short and parallel, a comma may replace the semicolon:

  • I’ll talk, you listen.

Clauses joined by a co-ordinating conjunction may also be separated by a semicolon (instead of a comma) if they are the last two of a series of clauses separated by semicolons:

  • It is easy to jump on the bandwagon; it is easy to wash one’s hands of an issue; but it is not easy to take a position contrary to that of the majority and to defend it at all costs, to the bitter end.

Use a semicolon if a sharper break is required than could be achieved with a comma (for emphasis or to convey antithesis):

  • The politician proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the unemployed worker fears this is true.

Clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb usually require a semicolon between them, though a comma may suffice if the clauses are short:

  • He loved his country; therefore he fought and died for it.
  • I think, therefore I am.

Elliptical clauses are conventionally separated from each other and from the introductory clause by semicolons, with commas often marking the ellipsis (see 7.17 Omitted words):

  • To err is human; to forgive, divine.

The semicolon can be replaced by a comma, however, provided that the comma marking the ellipsis can be dropped:

  • One best seller makes a successful writer, ten a great one.