The Semicolon: Basic Guide to Effective Usage

The semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark. In English, a…

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.

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.

person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug
Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

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.

Frequently asked questions

How do you use commas and semicolons?

Commas and the conjunction may be replaced with semicolons when they separate two complete sentences joined by a conjunction (and, but, nor, nor and but, for, so, or yet). After eating dinner, I went to the movies. My dinner came to an end. I watched the movies. She finished top of her class, but she struggled to find work.

What are some examples of semicolons?

Separate clauses for semicolons. If you put a period between the two clauses, that sentence could be sentences on their own.

What are the three semicolon rules?

  • If there are already commas in a sentence, use a semicolon to connect items in syllables.
  • To connect two similar, related sentences or sentences, use a semicolon (put together).
  • Use a semicolon when joining two related sentences with an adverb.

How do you use example?

Noun He set an example for us all. Her presentation of several examples shows that the program is effective. Three examples of contemporary architecture have been selected for greater understanding.

When should a semicolon be used examples?

This semicolon may be used between independent clauses linked to a connector, such as and, but, nor, etc., when one or more commas appear in the first clause. If I finish here, and I will soon, I will be happy to help you, and that’s a promise I’ll keep.

Did I use a semicolon correctly checker?

Observe how well you’re using semicolons on your own and see if they make sense by reading the two clauses on their own. It’s a miss if they don’t. In the first example, a semicolon is used to introduce a list; this should be a colon.

What does semicolon mean example?

In order to join two related phrases together, a semicolon indicates that they are in fact related. With a semicolon, we can join the girl running and the dog yawning from the ground up. To complete thoughts, you must use two separate clauses.

What are 5 uses of a semicolon?

  • Indexing items in a list.
  • Linking Two Sentences
  • Synonymizing Sentences with Transitional Phrases or Conjunctive Adverbs.
  • Confusion between the Semicolon and the Comma is not helpful.
  • Sentences linked to internal punctuation.

Do you use a semicolon before a list?

Semicolons separate items within a list, while a colon precedes and introduces a checklist. On the hike, he took three items: his lunch, binoculars, and trusty walking stick.

What are 5 examples of compound sentences?

  • I like coffee. Mary likes tea. Mary and I enjoy coffee.
  • When Mary went to work. John was at the party. I went home. If Mary went to work, John went to the party, and I went home.
  • There was a breakdown of our car. We came last. It was our car that broke down; we arrived the last time.

Why would you use a semicolon instead of a comma?

Semicolons are used to link two sentences or independent clauses. Contrary to the comma, you do not use coordinating conjunctions, such as and, or, but, etc. This semicolon may also be used when containing adverbs that connect two independent clauses, such as, however, therefore, otherwise, etc.

How many semicolons can you use in a sentence?

Semicolons can be used to connect three or more independent clauses.

How do you use a colon example?

The colon can be used to connect two independent sentences. The second sentence is typically used to explain or clarify the first sentence. I and my sisters are very excited about going to Disneyland, for example!

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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