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How to Use a Semicolon: Rules and Examples

Semicolons are often misused. In fact, many who are new to writing – and many who have been writing for years – are intimidated by them and elect not to use them. Once you gain some basic knowledge about how to use semicolons the right way, you will be able to incorporate them into your writing with confidence.

What is a Semicolon?

A semicolon is a punctuation mark that looks like a comma topped with a period. Doctor and essayist Lewis Thomas explains the semicolon’s purpose perfectly in Notes on Punctuation:

“I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years…It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.”

How to Use a Semicolon

There are only a few instances in which it is appropriate to use a semicolon rather than a period. The first way to use this interesting punctuation mark is to help make a complicated list easier to read.

  • “There were many mayors at the conference including leaders from San Diego, California; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Oregon.”

The second way to use a semicolon is to insert it between closely related independent clauses to create sentences that flow in a meaningful and attractive way.

  • “My brother always wakes up before the birds; he’s afraid to miss out on anything.”

When semicolons are used this way, they imply a relationship between balanced ideas. Rather than saying because my brother is afraid to miss out on anything, we use the semicolon to imply the because.

The third way to use a semicolon is to insert it between two independent clauses, even when they are connected via a coordinating conjunction. This is particularly true when those independent clauses are lengthy or complex, especially when they contain commas.

  • Professor Neilson realized that her next writing class contained two football players, a basketball star, and three cheerleaders; but despite her worries about their dedication to sports, all these students worked hard and made good grades.

This method is grammatically correct but it is rarely used as it doesn’t flow well. If this happens, consider using each separate clause as a single sentence.

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