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 explain 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.”
So, why are semicolons so often misused, especially when compared to other types of punctuation like commas, periods and question marks? The confusion comes with the fact that the semicolon operates in a kind of murky gray area between commas and periods. As pointed out in in the example above, the period has a note of finality to it, meaning the sentence has come to a stop. The comma, however, is used as a brief pause to separate items in a list or introduce a clause with the help of a coordinating conjunction (if, but, because, etc.). Those two punctuation marks seem clear, but a semicolon? A semicolon is stronger than a comma, but it does not signal finality in the same manner as a period.
Consider these three examples:
1. My brother is going to Harvard, because he got excellent grades.
2. My brother is going to Harvard. He got excellent grades.
3. My brother is going to Harvard; he got excellent grades.
In the first example, we must use the conjunction because after the comma to introduce the clause.
In the second example, the period suggests that the two pieces of information are unrelated. However, we know that they are closely related, so splitting the sentences with a period is both clumsy and a poor use of punctuation.
In the final example, the semicolon is acting as a bridge between the two clauses. It is as if the semicolon is saying to the reader: “You have just read this first piece of information, but you should now get ready for this further piece of information, as it is related to the first.”
If the first and third examples are correct, does that mean a semicolon is just a fancy way of replacing the comma and a coordinating conjunction? Was the author Kurt Vonnegut correct when he said semicolons represented “absolutely nothing” and “it is only used to show you have been to college.”? Or do we take the side of President Abraham Lincoln, who said: “…I have great respect for the semicolon; he’s a useful little chap.”?
As you may have gathered, the use of the semicolon can be a question of style. Many writers avoid them or see no added value using them. In fact, you could probably have a fine literary career without ever using one. However, many scholars are convinced of their importance and continued necessity, even pointing out the integral role the semicolon plays in important texts like the US Constitution. Moreover, there are some more technical instances, such as the separating of confusing information in lists, where the semicolon is a necessary tool rather than a stylistic luxury.
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 Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego, California; Albany, New York City, and Elmira, New York; Carbondale, Scranton, and 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 would be attended by two football players, a basketball star, and three cheerleaders; 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.
Use a semicolon to connect two related independent clauses. An independent clause basically means it’s a sentence that makes sense on its own. Therefore, two related independent clauses are two sentences that could make sense on their own but are related in some way, normally in the sense that the second independent clause gives us more information about the first. Look at these examples and notice how each consists of two sets of sentences which are related to each other:
• I hate Alaska; it’s too cold.
• I always get up early on weekends; I like to make the most of my time off work.
• We love all animals; cats are our favorite.
Use a semicolon to replace a coordinating conjunction. As has been suggested earlier, in most cases a semicolon can be used stylistically to replace a conjunction like and, but, because and so on. You can see in the examples below how it’s a choice between conjunction or semicolon
• I hate Alaska, because it’s too cold.
• I always get up early on weekend, as I like to make the most of my time off work.
• We love all animals, but cats are our favorite.
Use a semicolon when writing serial lists. What is a serial list? A list that is long or requires punctuation to divide up different clauses, as in the example about mayors above.
Here’s an example of a normal list that wouldn’t require a semicolon:
• I like the colors red, green, blue, orange and turquoise.
Here’s an example of a serial list that would require a semicolon to separate the clauses:
• I like lots of colors, including red, as it reminds me of roses; green, like the grass in a country meadow; blue, like the sky; orange, for all those sunsets at dusk; turquoise, as it conjures up the color of the Caribbean Sea.
Use a semicolon when you have a conjunctive adverb that links two independent clauses. This can be tricky, because sometimes conjunctive adverbs – however, moreover, indeed, nevertheless, otherwise etc. – can be used in sentences without linking two independent clauses. Here are some examples of how it works:
• I really don’t like red meat; moreover, it’s bad for your health.
• John wanted to go for a walk across the hills; indeed, he felt he could do with the exercise.
• We dislike all Tarantino’s movies; however, we will make an exception for Pulp Fiction.
Remember: the semicolon is only used to join two independent clauses linked by a conjunctive adverb, so you don’t need to use a semicolon every time you come across words like however, otherwise and moreover.
Examples of Semicolons Uses(Correct vs Incorrect)
Here are some more examples of semicolons used in different circumstances:
Connecting two related independent clauses in place of a conjunction:
• Andrew adores fried chicken and roast turkey; he always eats poultry for dinner.
• I have been practicing football like crazy; I hope to make the team next year.
• Staying in Paris is expensive; the hotel prices are extortionate.
• Harry has royal blood; his brother will be King of England one day.
• Where are the boys? John is at soccer practice; Matt is staying with friends.
However, it’s incorrect to use a semi colon when the sentences are not related:
• Andrew adores fried chicken and roast turkey; he is a doctor. Incorrect.
• Andrew adores fried chicken. He is a doctor. Correct.
• I have been practising football like crazy; I think I’ll wear my blue hoodie to the party. Incorrect.
• I have been practicing football like crazy. I think I’ll wear my blue hoodie to the party. Correct.
• Staying in Paris is expensive; Rome is a romantic city. Incorrect.
• Staying in Paris is expensive. Rome is a romantic city. Correct.
Creating a serial list:
• These are my favorite European cities: London, England; Paris and Marseilles, France; Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, Germany; and, my favorite of all, Porto, Portugal.
• You will need to pack the following items: a hat and scarf, in case it’s cold; t-shirts and shorts, as it might be hot; and a light sweater, if the weather is somewhere in-between.
• John had six sons, including John Jr, who was named after his father; Jack, Jeff and Jim, who became doctors; Jordan, who moved abroad; and, of course Joseph, the star basketball player.
However, it’s incorrect to use a semicolon for simple lists:
• My favorite European cities are London; Paris; and Berlin. Incorrect.
• My favorite European cities are London, Paris and Berlin. Correct.
• You will need to pack a hat; scarf; t-shirts; shorts; and a light sweater. Incorrect.
• You will need to pack a hat, scarf, t-shirts, shorts and a light sweater. Correct.
• John had six sons, including John Jr; Jack; Jeff and Jim; Jordan; and Joseph. Incorrect.
• John has six sons, including John Jr. His other sons were Jack, Jeff, Jim, Jordan and Joseph. Correct.
Preceding a conjunctive adverb connecting two independent clauses:
• Una likes all types of classical music; indeed, she has mastered Bach on the piano.
• Valentin was determined not to answer the door; although, he knew he would eventually.
• The President knew her plan was unpopular; nevertheless, she promoted it in her speech.
• I don’t like dogs; moreover, they smell terrible when wet.
However, it’s incorrect to use a semicolon when the conjunctive adverb does not connect two independent clauses:
• Una; however, likes all type of classical music. Incorrect.
• Una, however, like all type of classical music. Correct.
• The President; moreover, knew her plan was unpopular. Incorrect.
• The President, moreover, knew her plan was unpopular. Correct.