The idea for this little grammarrific series that I'm trying to do came to me one day when I was consulting dictionary.com. They had an article discussing the "maddening and mysterious" semicolon.
Truly, it is maddening and mysterious. Some think it is superfluous in our punctuation lexicon. Others think that its use, when mastered, elevates writing to new heights. I suppose I am more apt to agree with the latter. However, I'm not one of those people who can use the semicolon masterfully. Perhaps one day.
There was one semester in college in which I thought that I thoroughly understood the semicolon. Consequently, I eschewed all other forms of punctuation and composed papers using the semicolon almost exclusively. Needless to say, I unwittingly proved to several proof readers that I understood it not at all.
So, when venturing into the nebulous universe of semicolon usage, I think a good guideline is this: You don't have to use it. Unlike the comma or period, it is never necessary. So don't use it unless you're certain that it's correct. You might even want to refrain unless you can be sure that it adds something to your writing.
Now, for those of us that yearn to unlock the mystery of the semicolon and harness its powers for the betterment of mankind through skillful punctuation, let's start easy:
I think the most simple and easy-to-remember way to use a semicolon is when listing items that are separated by comas. This is perhaps the only case where you must use it. But it's very easy to use in this situation.
For example: "I've traveled to Seattle, Washington; Austin, Texas; and Salt Lake City, Utah."
Or, for a more complex sentence:
"My favorite people include Samuel Slaughterjaws, a famous unicorn hunter; my uncle Wilford, a world champion at mayonnaise eating contests; and Nikola Tesla, the most awesome dude ever to fire a lightening bolt at an angry peasant." (Taken from The Oatmeal.com)
Easy enough, right? This usage is also known as the "super-comma." See? Punctuation is exciting!
The only other hard and fast rule that I have gleaned regarding the semicolon is this: it is used to connect two complete sentences without a conjunction.
Example: My aunt also had hairy knuckles; she loved to wash and comb them. (The Oatmeal.com)
So, why would you use a semicolon between two complete clauses when you could just as easily use a period? This is where the semicolon becomes more complicated and more dependent on the writer's command of it. Basically, the semicolon is used to convey a fluidity, a connectedness between sentences, that the period does not convey. So you must determine in the flow of your writing where you want a complete pause (period) and where you want a moderate pause (semicolon). If you want a slight or no pause, a comma may be in order.
Always use a semicolon when separating items in a list separated by commas. It may also be used when connecting two independent clauses where you wish to emphasize the connection between sentences rather than a complete stop. Regarding the latter usage, when in doubt, use another form of punctuation! (This is also my philosophy of parallel parking.)
I'm not yet done with the semicolon; it's like an enigma wrapped in mystery. But for now, if you want more, here is an article that's probably more entertaining and easier to understand than what you just read through! You're welcome!