Using the semicolon correctly - learning from Winston Churchill

Do you know how to use the semicolon? Are you sure? I met a fascinating entrepreneur at networking and couldn’t wait to check out his website. It was bright and well laid-out with great pictures. But ; it was ; infected with semicolons. Like pin pricks in a balloon, these dots and commas immediately deflated my enthusiasm.

Here’s just one example, with a change of context:

  • Reach the highest branches; we help you find the best harvesting tools for your orchard.

Them’s the rules

Why did this semicolon jar? In a sentence a semicolon should act like the pivot on a balanced see-saw. I went through the checklist:

  1. Could each section stand as a sentence in its own right? Yes.
  2. Were the sections before and after the semicolon related to each other? Yes.
  3. Were the sections similar in length, or the second one shorter? Not really, but maybe at a push.

So what was my problem?

Then realisation dawned – it’s all about the context. Shorter sentences work better on a website. Why? Our attention span is 25% shorter when we read from a screen rather than paper. Also shorter sentences sound more like real-life conversation. This helps makes up for the sterile, non-human screen environment.

In theory Mr Inspirational Entrepreneur had used the semicolon correctly. But it was making his business sound old-fashioned.

“But I love semicolons!”

Hey, I’m not the punctuation police. In literature, they can be a thing of elegant beauty. In long reports, they still have their uses. But if you’re determined to use them, first check out the Oatmeal’s brilliant  guide to the semicolon.

What about semicolons in lists?

In the past semicolons were used to split up a list such as:

“I recommend you visit the Churchill War Rooms; see the musical Wicked; and indulge in the champagne bar at St Pancras Station.”

However now we have bulleted lists, which are Google-friendly and easier to read. For example:

“I recommend you:

  • visit the Churchill War Rooms
  • see the musical Wicked
  • indulge in the champagne bar at St Pancras Station”

Quick alternatives

Writing for business? Then I would avoid the semicolon. It’s just too easy to get wrong. And when you do, those who know how they should be used will be irritated. Here are some friendlier alternatives. Examples by the master writer Winston Churchill:

Dash or hyphen

Use a dash or hyphen to split the sentence. This mimics the pauses in conversation. If your words sound more like natural speech, they automatically sounds friendlier.

“In those days he was wiser than he is now – he used frequently to take my advice.”
– Winston Churchill

Colons

Writer Winston ChurchillUse a colon to split the sentence. Including a colon is like saying “Wait for it… Ta-da!” It’s a great way to let your reader take a pause before leading them to the next thing.

“There are two things that are more difficult than making an after-dinner speech:
climbing a wall which is leaning toward you and kissing a girl who is leaning
away from you.”
– Winston Churchill

Full stops

Would it read better as a group of smaller sentences, instead of one long one? Short sentences pack more of a punch.

I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.
– Winston Churchill

Sentences should be no longer than 15 words. If they are, Google will mark you down – find out why in Want higher rankings in Google? Check your sentence length.

Headers

Headers are excellent ways to split up your text. They also give your page some more white space. The more white space there is, the easier a page is to read.

Which do you think is best?

Reach the highest branches; we help you find the best harvesting tools for your orchard.

Reach the highest branches – we help you find the best harvesting tools for your orchard.

Reach the highest branches: we help you find the best harvesting tools for your orchard.

Reach the highest branches. We help you find the best harvesting tools for your orchard.

Reach the highest branches

We help you find the best harvesting tools for your orchard.

Like more help?

I’d be happy to have an obligation-free chat. You have an accountant for your figures, so why not a professional for your words? I can help with Google-friendly web content, social media and more. Please get in touch.

P.S. See Churchill’s onesie

For an evocative museum about the Second World War, the Churchill War Rooms in London are amazing. You’ll even get to see his red velvet onesie. Yes, seriously.