When to Use Semi-Colons

The semi-colon is often disparaged. I thought I remembered once reading that Virginia Woolf said that they should never be used. But that can’t be, as she used them—a lot.

In any event, I rarely see them being used. But they are the best choice in some cases. One is to separate items in a series when one or more of the items contains a comma. Here is an example:

He loved bread, which he made himself on Sundays; rich stews; and chocolate pudding.

Of course, one could switch the order of the items and seemingly obviate the semi-colon:

He loved rich stews, chocolate pudding, and bread, which he made himself on Sundays.

But there is a problem with the revision: it isn’t crystal clear that which he made himself on Sundays applies only to bread. Keep that order, but separate the items with semi-colons, and the uncertainty disappears:

He loved rich stews; chocolate pudding; and bread, which he made himself on Sundays.

In a similar manner, I especially advise semi-colons when you want to show that one independent clause relates to or extends another. Consider the following passage, which is written without semi-colons:

Scholars have long argued that inflation cycles pose significant threats to reformed communism (or market socialism), since pressure for investment is pervasive (to maintain employment and prop up public firms) but limits on that investment are few. A previous generation of scholarship has advanced two main explanations for how the CCP managed macroeconomic cycles during the first two decades of the reform era. Yasheng Huang emphasized the role of party discipline in restraining investment, whereas Victor Shih focuses on the ascendance of “generalist” versus “technocratic” factions who, respectively, generate and restrain investment. These accounts do well to explain macroeconomic management between 1978 and 1994, after which cycles become milder and macroeconomic control more centralized.

Question: In the last sentence, does these accounts refer only to the studies by Huang and Shih, or does it refer to the entire body of scholarship discussed in the passage? It’s not entirely clear. If these accounts refers only to the studies by Huang and Shih, a semi-colon joining the last two sentences would have made that clear:

Yasheng Huang emphasized the role of party discipline in restraining investment, whereas Victor Shih focuses on the ascendance of “generalist” versus “technocratic” factions who, respectively, generate and restrain investment; these accounts do well to explain macroeconomic management between 1978 and 1994, after which cycles become milder and macroeconomic control more centralized.

Despite what some may say, there is no reason to categorically avoid using semi-colons. They can be helpful, as I hope the examples here show.