“What’s that?” my student asked me during our Skype lesson this morning. “That thing?” he continued, typing the punctuation mark in question: a semicolon. Grammar nerds like myself often love this mysterious punctuation mark, but the subtle beauty of a well-placed semicolon escapes even many native English speakers.
Logically, the first place to look is a dictionary… or your favorite search engine. According to meriam-webster.com, the semicolon is “a punctuation mark ; used chiefly in a coordinating function between major sentence elements (as independent clauses of a compound sentence)” (“Semicolon.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 10 June 2016.).
This particular student is pressed for time and doesn’t need precise grammatical terms (like “compound sentence” or independent clause”) for his career field, so I don’t use them. Instead, we’ve talked about complete sentences and how various punctuation marks function. This led to an interesting comparison that made up my function-based definition:
The groups words on either side of the semicolon could function as complete sentences, so they could be separated by a period as well. However, a semicolon joins two very closely related sentences whereas a period separates two sentences.
If you’re interested in more grammatical or in-depth definitions, one of my favorite sites for such questions is Perdue OWL (owl.english.perdue.edu).