What’s the Correct Way to Use a Semicolon?

Tuesday, January 242 min read

As a blend between a colon and a comma, the aptly named semicolon is one of the most misunderstood (and misused) English punctuation marks. Its primary job is to link ideas that are closely related in thought. But that’s a job that can also be done by a comma or an em dash. So why use a semicolon? Let’s learn more about the specific functions of this unique punctuation mark.

Connect Independent Clauses

The most common way to use a semicolon is by joining two independent clauses. That means it links together two stand-alone clauses into one sentence.

We’re going to the dance; you could borrow my dress.

Tomorrow is the big game; I can’t stay out late tonight.

Keep in mind, the two independent clauses should be closely related. Otherwise, it makes more sense to break them into separate sentences. It’s also important to note that a comma can’t replace a semicolon in this usage — that creates a comma splice.

Another note: Semicolons can only link two independent clauses. If the parts are an independent clause and a dependent clause, it’s a no-go. Dependent clauses feature a subject and a verb but aren't complete sentences. If there’s a dependent clause, a comma and a coordinating conjunction are likely needed instead of a semicolon.

In Place of a Conjunction

Independent clauses can be joined by a semicolon or by a comma and a coordinating conjunction. (Use the mnemonic FANBOYS to remember the seven coordinating conjunctions: “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.”)

See how the the semicolon replaces the comma AND the coordinating conjunction:

Tom went to the party, but Arleen stayed at home.

Tom went to the party; Arleen stayed at home.

The snake slithered past my feet, yet it didn’t seem to notice me.

The snake slithered past my feet; it didn’t seem to notice me.

Remember, the semicolon links the independent clauses and shows a relationship or contrast. It can also create variety. For example, the semicolon allows a writer to add a longer sentence among other short, clipped sentences.

Conjunctive Adverbs

Semicolons are also used to link clauses when the second begins with a conjunctive adverb or transitional expression. Some examples include “accordingly,” “furthermore,” “however,” “instead,” “otherwise,” and “therefore.”

Shawn set an oven timer; nevertheless, he burned the casserole.

Nora helped her brother study; however, he failed the class.

As long as it is joining two independent clauses, using the semicolon is appropriate.

Separate Items on a List

Writers can use semicolons to make a long or complicated list of items easier to read. Typically, these are lists that contain phrases or other internal punctuation that might be difficult to read without semicolons:

Several speakers would be at the community center: Mr. Samuels, the judge; Khalid Basha, the lawyer; and Marta Sparks, the council member.

The president is visiting Cleveland and Cincinnati in Ohio; Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania; and Buffalo and Albany in New York.

The semicolon should only be used if the list contains three or more elements, and they’re elaborate enough that the extra punctuation would help readers understand the meaning.

Featured image credit: Dimitris66/ iStock

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