How To Look Stupid In Front Of Your Customers: Stop Abusing Semicolons

Now that you have your small business up and running online, you’ve got your social media profiles set up, a shiny new website and lots of money to make, you need to start thinking about actively marketing your company.

For many small business owners, in addition to posting on social and setting up an email marketing campaign, this means blogging. Like every modern business owner, you have to now make time to become obsessed with blogging, sourcing information, interesting topics and copy-writing.

Everyone’s a copy-writer

Rather than opting to outsource the copy-writing for your new website or blog, you may choose to write it yourself. After all, who knows more about your products or services than you do?

Unfortunately, something a professional copy-writer might know a bit more about than you do is the semicolon. Something that is becoming increasingly apparent across numerous small business blogs is that there is a gap in our knowledge about the time and place to include a semicolon rather than a colon, comma or full-stop.

What’s the difference?

People seem to be confusing the role of a colon and a semicolon. The most common misuse of each on websites and blog posts is just before introducing a list.

This happens a lot:

Charlie’s Car Cleaning Carousel offers the following services;
                     Car cleaning
                     Cleaning your car on a carousel

In fact, the correct punctuation to use here would have been a colon, not a semicolon. Colons are used to introduce lists and before a quotation.

For example: “The copy here should have read: ‘Charlie’s Car Cleaning Carousel offers the following services:’”

Quite often, websites introduce products and services and precede their bullet-pointed list with a semicolon. This is incorrect. For more information about when and how to use a colon, check out the guide from Oxford Dictionaries.

When should you use a semicolon?

So, if not before a list or to introduce your services, or to precede a quote, when should you use a semicolon? The main purpose of a semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not quite as final as a full stop.

The semicolon does also have a place in list-writing but it should feature within the list, not in the list’s introduction. For example:

alldayPA offer professional inbound call handling services, bespoke to the requirements of your business; 24 hour telephone answering, 7 days a week, 365 days a year; and we tailor our prices to match your budget so that you get the best deal for you.

In the example for provided above, semicolons were used to decipher between different items in the list rather than commas because commas were already being used within the list items themselves. For more information about where and how to use a semicolon, check out Oxford Dictionary’s definition here.

You probably won’t need to know a lot of this

The copy for your site should be crisp, clean and simple, without too many fancy clauses, elaborate uses of punctuation and run-on sentences. Therefore, you probably won’t actually need semicolons a lot of the time, because bullet-pointed lists are just as (if not more) effective.

However, because of the sheer number of business sites misusing semicolons in place of a colon before bullet-pointed lists, it is necessary to outline the differences between the two. There is an element of “Everyone else uses a semicolon before a list, so that must be how you use it.” Unfortunately, this is not the case. If you take away anything from this article, let it be this: colons introduce lists; semi colons break them up.

Why is it important?

The copy on your site is a reflection of your business. When people come to read about your products and services, or browse your blog for interesting information and insights, they will formulate assumptions about who you are, what you do and whether they want to know more.

If the copy on your site contains spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, you are presenting an unprofessional image to your potential clients. Needless to say, this is an undesirable outcome for you as a business owner. At worst, it creates the impression that you don’t really know what you’re talking about; at best, it implies that you couldn’t afford or be bothered to get it done professionally – or at least to double-check it!

Everyone might be writing copy, but that doesn’t make everyone a copy-writer. There is a misconception that writing the copy is the easy bit. You know what you want to say, you know how to talk and you know how to type – simple! But when it comes to your site, you can’t be too careful about the content you put on there and what it says about you.

You might argue that misusing a semicolon or two is not the end of the world – people know what you mean! – but it does matter. It’s about creating the full package: professional from top to toe. Your website and your blog are too important to use as arenas for practicing punctuation.

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