The Semicolon: Basic Guide to Effective Usage

The semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark. In English, a semicolon typically indicates that two related independent clauses follow without any conjunction. This article discusses how to use the semicolon effectively.

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    What Is a Semicolon?

    The semicolon is a punctuation mark that joins two closely related independent clauses. It indicates that the two clauses are closely related, but one is not dependent on the other. The semicolon also helps break up an overly long sentence by dividing it into two (or more) sentences.

    A semicolon (;) is a mark that consists of a period stacked on top of a comma. It doesn’t mean it can be used in place of a period or a comma.

    The Semicolon: Rules for Proper Usage

    When you need to join two independent clauses without a conjunction, the semicolon is the appropriate punctuation mark. Even though similar, commas, periods, and semicolons cannot be used interchangeably. A comma splice will result if commas are used instead of semicolons in sentences.

    The semicolon comes between the first and second independent clauses. The first independent clause in the sentence should begin with a capital letter. After the semicolon, the second clause shouldn’t start in a capital letter, except if the word that follows is a proper noun.

    1. Use Semicolons to connect related independent clauses

    The semicolon links two independent clauses that share a close connection. The easiest way to remember when it is appropriate to use semicolons is to check the two clauses. Each clause must form a grammatically complete sentence.

    The two sentences should be closely related but not dependent on each other.

    Examples:

    • James prepared dinner; Mary washed the dishes.
    • Rachel is a public relations stud; Joe is a chess professional.

    2. Use a Semicolon between items in a list/series

    The semicolon can be used to separate long items in a list or series if they contain commas.

    Example:

    • There are two ways to produce content: with a pen and paper, which is easily accessible and cheap; or with a computer and printer, which is more expensive but quick and presentable.
    • My plan for my brother’s birthday includes getting him a shoe – though not expensive; taking him to the cinema to see a movie; one he has always wanted to see, and taking him to a nice dinner.

    3. Use a Semicolon with Conjunctive adverbs

    Two independent clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases can be represented with a semicolon. Examples of conjunctive adverbs are nevertheless, as a result of, however, and therefore.

    This rule only applies if the semicolon helps the conjunctive adverb connect two independent clauses.

    Examples

    • I need to read before I go to bed; also, I need to prepare dinner.
    • I’m not so fond of ice creams from the restaurant; moreover, they don’t taste delicious.

    4. A conjunction should be Absent when you use a semicolon

    A semicolon connects related independent clauses. Conjunctions (while, but, so, and) can also do this. When using a semicolon, you’re using it instead of a conjunction.

    Using both in a sentence will make your sentence look messy. You don’t want this.

    Examples:

    Correct: I have a busy day tomorrow, so I need to sleep early tonight.

    Correct: I have a busy day tomorrow; I need to sleep early tonight.

    Incorrect: I have a busy day tomorrow; so I need to sleep early tonight.

    Differences between the Colon and Semicolon

    The colon and semicolon are often used interchangeably. This shouldn’t be the case. Semicolons and colons represent a relationship between two ideas, but the indicated relationship is different. Hence, these punctuation marks must be used in different contexts.

    The differences between the two are highlighted below:

    1. Definition and symbol

    A colon is a punctuation mark used to introduce a list of items, explain, and introduce a quotation. The colon is represented by (:).

    A semicolon is a punctuation mark used to separate significant elements in a sentence. The semicolon is represented by (;)

    2. Joining clauses

    Colons join two clauses when the second clause provides an explanation or further details about the first.

    Semicolons link two independent clauses that are closely related but are not dependent on each other.

    3. Introducing a Quotation

    The colon introduces a quotation.

    The semicolon is not used to introduce a quotation.

    4. Introducing a List

    Colons are used to introduce a list. 

    The semicolon is not used to introduce a list but can separate long items in a list or series if they contain commas.

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    To Wrap Up

    The semicolon has a variety of uses for punctuating a sentence in a proper, grammatically correct, and logical fashion. You can use the semicolon to connect related independent clauses, separate items in a list or series, and use it with conjunctive adverbs.

    However, for a semicolon to be appropriate in any given situation, it must follow specific rules for how and when to use it. This article has highlighted these rules.

    The Semicolon: Basic Guide to Effective Usage

    Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

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