As an editor, I’ve noticed a trend of overusing and improperly using the semicolon. Perhaps it is because semicolons are cooler looking than commas. Maybe an author decides they already used a bunch of commas, so they must switch to something else. I don’t know, but there are right and wrong ways to use a semicolon.
Semicolons are typically a formal grammar punctuation. You will find them in nonfiction, essays, research papers, etc. For fiction, semicolons should be used sparingly, like one per 50 pages sparingly.
The most common use of the semicolon is to separate two independent clauses* that are not joined by a conjunction**.
The participants in the first study were paid; those in the second were not. (Example taken from the Concise Rules of APA Style, 6th edition)
In film, a low-angle shot makes the subject look powerful; a high-angle shot does just the opposite. (Example taken from The Bedford Handbook, 8th edition)
Another use for the semicolon is to separate elements in a series that already contain commas.
The color order was red, yellow, blue; blue, yellow, red; or yellow, red, blue. (Example taken from the Concise Rules of APA Style, 6th edition)
Classic science fiction sagas are Star Trek, with Mr. Spock; Battlestar Galactica, with is Cylons; and Star Wars, with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader. (Example taken from The Bedford Handbook, 8th edition)
Sometimes semicolons are used between independent clauses linked with a transitional expression. For a list of transitional words and phrases, click here.
Many corals grow very gradually; in fact, the creations of a coral reef can take centuries.
Biologists have observed laughter in primates other than humans; chimpanzees, however, sound more like they are panting than laughing.
(Examples taken from The Bedford Handbook, 8th edition)
Where I see semicolons misused the most has to do with adjectives or adding more description to a sentence.
(Incorrect) The woman was kind; sweet and caring to a fault.
(Correct) The woman was kind, sweet and caring to a fault.
Semicolons generally shouldn't be used in dialogue either. Unless your character speaks very formally, it would sound weird for someone to speak in semicolons. Think about it.
A good way to remember not to use semicolons is the winking emoticon ;). If someone winks at you once, it can be charming, playful, flirty. If they keep winking at you, then it becomes downright creepy.
So remember to use your semicolons sparingly. Most of the time you’ll just need a comma, except at times for the rules above.
After all, you don’t want to be a creepy winker, do you? ;) ;) ;)
*Independent clauses are two sentences (subject, verb) that can stand alone but have been joined together by a semicolon.
**Conjunctions are words like “and,” “or,” “but,” “nor,” “for,” “so,” and “yet.”