Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that writers should “not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” He might have been right. It seems exceedingly unlikely that anyone in the history of writing has ever read a story or essay and thought, “Well, it was pretty good, but it didn’t have any semicolons.”
Semicolons are used to separate very short, closely-related independent clauses, or in place of commas in the rare case where there is a list within a list or the items in a list contain commas. While semicolons have been used in different ways and with varying frequency for the last almost 600 years, today they are used more in programming languages than in prose writing. Although British authors tend to use semicolons a bit more, many well-known, award-winning, American writers have gone their whole careers without ever using a semicolon.
If you want to play it safe, remember that people are much more likely to notice a misused semicolon than it’s absence.
Example: “At the sound of his voice the Director started into a guilty realization of where he was; shot a glance at Bernard, and averting his eyes, blushed darkly; looked at him again with sudden suspicion and, angrily on his dignity, ‘Don’t imagine,’ he said, ‘that I’d had any indecorous relation with the girl. Nothing emotional, nothing long-drawn. It was all perfectly healthy and normal.’” – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
You will notice here that Huxley is making a list of things that the director did but that some of those items in the list contain commas (shot a glance at Bernard, and averting his eyes, blushed darkly) so it would be confusing if he used commas to separate the elements in the list. Instead, he used semicolons.
If you absolutely must use a semicolon to show that you are collegiate, remember that they are not used with coordinating conjunctions and two sentences joined by a semicolon should be short and closely related. Use a comma with conjunctions and a period for two separate sentences
Incorrect: I wanted to go to the store; but I didn’t have any money.
Correct: I wanted to go to the store, but I didn’t have any money.
Incorrect: I went to my aunt’s house to borrow some sugar and use her Wi-Fi; she just lives a few miles away, but it still took me an hour to get there because of traffic.
Correct: I went to my aunt’s house to borrow some sugar and use her Wi-Fi. She just lives a few miles away, but it still took me an hour to get there because of traffic.