Poetry Punctuation – semi-colon use

At yesterday’s meeting of the Poetry Society of Tennessee’s Northeastern Branch (PST-NE) in Gray, TN, the group was critiquing one of my poems. I’d overused the semi-colon. Gulp! Oops! Ben Dugger, our resident poetry expert, from the Masters Program at George Mason University offered to write me out some ‘rules’ . Did I get the university right, Ben? I trust Ben’s opinion, because he helped me tremendously with my senyru submission to the April PST monthly contest and I won first place! Unfortunately, I wasn’t qualified to help him as much, but he still won third place! Look out Memphis the NE branch is doing good.

Ben agreed I could share this information on my blog. His expertise may help other writers as well. These ‘rules’ are not only for poetry, but are useful for prose. So here is a reprint of his message to me on semi-colons.

Ben Dugger wrote –

“I am attaching the semicolon rules to this e-mail.  I wrote the examples this morning (examples always assist me in understanding a concept), and I hope they are sufficiently clear.  As I state in the last paragraph of my “rule sheet,” the most important ingredients in this “semisalad” are TWO INDEPENDENT CLAUSES!    

There are five basic uses of a semicolon in American English:

– use a semicolon between independent clauses NOT joined by a coordinating conjunction  (and, but, or, etc.).


Some authors may worry about correct punctuation; others won’t give it a second   thought.

– use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb (however, indeed, nevertheless, etc.).


Some authors may worry about correct punctuation; however, others won’t give it a second thought.

 – use a semicolon between independent clauses of a compound sentence if the clauses are extremely long OR are themselves subdivided by commas, OR if writer desires a more definitive break than that marked by a comma.


Only a free human being can make an absolute choice; but the human being who is free can never be forced to make such a choice; otherwise, he is not truly free.

The first and third lines of the poem are composed in iambic tetrameter; the second line contains a troche and an amphibrach; and the fourth line an iamb and an anapest, with alternate rhyming.

– use a semicolon after expressions such as HE SAID and SHE REPLIED if said expression comes between two independent clauses.


“I’m sure you’ll enjoy the play,” he said; “just get dressed and go.”

(Note: the writer may use a period after HE SAID in the above example, but a comma is never used,)

– use a semicolon to replace commas in separating elements in a series IF the elements themselves contain commas.


The award-winning cities were Johnson City, Tennessee; Falls Church, Virginia; and Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The phrase “independent clauses” is stated in all rules of usage for the semicolon, save the last.  In most cases, therefore, if one wishes to use a semicolon, at least two independent clauses must be present.”

                                                   End of Ben’s quote.

My Gregg Reference Manual (Ninth Edition) also has eleven sections which state semi-colon use. They all seem to agree with Ben’s ‘rules’. I only quote the following from the Gregg book which I thought was important for me to know.

The Semicolon – Between Independent Clauses – And, But, Or, or Nor Omitted. However, if the clauses are not closely related, treat them as separate sentences.

The omission of but between two independent clauses requires, strictly speaking, the use of a semicolon between the two clauses. However, when the clauses are short, a comma is commonly used to preserve the flow of the sentence.  Example: Not only was the food bad, the portions were minuscule.

                                        End of excerpt from the Gregg book.

So, now I will determine which (probably all) semi-colons must go away in my poem.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Rose Klix

My website is at http://www.roseklix.com


11 thoughts on “Poetry Punctuation – semi-colon use

  1. I wouldn’t dare make a comment about poetry but I do use a semicolon between independent clauses in my prose writing. I don’t think I knew the rules, however. It is just something that seems right to me. I printed a copy of your email with the rules which I feel will help me tremendously. Thanks.


  2. How lucky for me to have Googled “using semicolons in free verse” and clicking on the link that brought me here! I’m an East TN girl, and I had no idea that PST-NE existed! Thank you for the information 🙂


    • Hi, Nicole, Please join us for the next PST-NE meeting on February 10, 2018 (2nd Sat of the month) at 2:00 PM. Currently, we meet at the Blountville Library. I’m looking forward to meeting you in person. Please share your poetry at the meeting. I’ll be the speaker for a brief discussion on “What do Poetry Judges Want?”


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