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When to Use a Semicolon Correctly

Julia McCoy
Tuesday, 17th Oct 2023
Julia McCoy
5 min read · Jan 11 2022
When to use a semicolon

Ever found yourself staring at your screen, fingers frozen over the keyboard?

You’ve just written two sentences that are as close as siblings. They’re complete on their own, but they share a deep connection.

A period feels too harsh — like sending each to separate rooms for no reason. 

A comma? Too weak — it can’t hold them together alone. 

What do you use then?

This is when knowing when to use a semicolon becomes crucial.

In this article, we’ll explore when to use a semicolon properly, why it is significant in sentence formation, and how it can correct mistakes like comma splices. 

You’ll learn not only how to wield this powerful punctuation mark in lists and series but also its role in formal writing contexts such as literature and professional documents.

Looking for more grammar tips and why grammar matters? Find out how to master interjections and when exclamation points are acceptable too.

Table of Contents:

What Is a Semicolon?

The semicolon — symbolized as “;” — is an intriguing punctuation mark that often goes unnoticed in the world of writing. It plays multiple roles and adds a unique touch to sentence structuring.

Akin to its counterparts, the comma and the period, the semicolon separates elements within a series or marks the end of a complete clause. However, it does so with a distinct style, providing continuity between related clauses while maintaining their individuality.

Why Use a Semicolon?

The art of using punctuation marks correctly is a vital aspect of writing. Among these punctuation marks, the semicolon often seems to be one of the most misunderstood. 

So, why should we use a semicolon?

The Elements of Style, an esteemed grammar manual by William Strunk and E.B. White first published in 1920, clearly says that if two or more clauses are grammatically complete but not joined by any conjunction, then it’s appropriate to use a semicolon to link them into one compound sentence. This helps maintain clarity while avoiding run-on sentences, which could potentially confuse your readers.

Who Uses Semicolons?

The use of semicolons is often associated with professional writers and copy editors, but it’s a punctuation mark that can be utilized by anyone who wants to improve their writing skills.

Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief at Penguin Random House and author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, counts the semicolon among his favorite pieces of punctuation.

Dreyer draws inspiration from one of America’s great authors, Shirley Jackson, who was known for her love of semicolons. In fact, he points out that Jackson’s iconic work The Haunting of Hill House has three semicolons in just the first paragraph.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Understanding when and how to properly use a semicolon can enhance your written communication, whether you’re drafting a business proposal or penning your next novel. If you’re unsure about using these punctuations correctly, here’s an excellent guide on when (and when not) to use a semicolon.

When to Use a Semicolon

Do you know when to use a semicolon?

A key rule for using semicolons is to connect closely related independent clauses without the assistance of conjunctions like “and”, “but”, or “or.” 

As stated by Dreyer, independent sentences don’t hang together well with commas unless they’re as terse as “He came, he saw, he conquered.

Think of a semicolon as a soft period. Semicolons are stronger connectors than commas, yet less divisive than full stops. They allow you to maintain fluidity between connected thoughts while still acknowledging each thought’s independence.

Here are some of the instances when to use a semicolon.

Semicolons in Between Clauses

An essential role of semicolons is to connect separate independent clauses that bear close meanings. They act as bridges linking two separate thoughts while highlighting their interrelation. 

For example: 

I love reading books; they transport me into different worlds.

Here, both statements are self-sufficient yet interconnected via the semicolon.

Semicolons allow you to skip the coordinating conjunction between two independent clauses.

So instead of:

I love pizza because it’s my comfort food.

You could write:

I love pizza; it’s my comfort food.

You still have a complete sentence that reads smoothly while preserving each clause’s independence.

Semicolons in Complex Lists

In addition to bridging clauses, semicolons also shine when used within complex lists

When list items are long or include commas themselves, simply using commas for separation can lead to confusion. This is where semicolons can help. By replacing these commas with semicolons, we maintain clarity without compromising on structure.

For example:

She has lived in New York City, New York; Los Angeles, California; and Austin, Texas.

This usage ensures each item (city + state) stands out distinctly despite being part of a longer list, which could be more challenging to read if you only used commas.

Another essential role for semicolons is separating listed items that have lengthy descriptions.

For example:

We ordered three pizzas: Margherita, topped with fresh basil and mozzarella; Pepperoni, loaded with spicy meat and extra cheese; and the Vegan special, which was surprisingly tasty.

Without semicolons, this list would be very difficult to read.

If you’ve ever written or read a sentence full of commas, you’ve probably lost track halfway through. These situations call for a semicolon as well.

For example:

My mother loves cooking new recipes from her favorite chefs: Jamie Oliver, known for his comfort food dishes; Julia Childs who popularized French cuisine in America; and Gordon Ramsay whose fiery personality matches his bold flavors.

Semicolons Make Transitional Phrases Clearer

Semicolons also shine brightly when used before transitional phrases like “however,” “therefore,” or “for instance.” 

For example:

I love ice cream; however, it doesn’t love me back.

The second clause here is missing some essential words supplied by the first. If your second clause feels incomplete without borrowing from the first one, then you’ve found yourself another perfect spot for a semicolon.

Semicolons Connect Related Ideas

Semicolons can also join two statements when the second clause is missing some essential words that are supplied by the first clause. 

For example:

Some people write with a word processor; others, with a pen.

The second clause, “others, with a pen”, might seem unclear, but if we use a semicolon to connect these thoughts, everything makes more sense.

Another illustration:

I love dogs; after all, they are man’s best friend.

The use of a semicolon here allows for a clear separation of ideas while maintaining a smooth flow.

Period vs. Comma vs. Semicolon

Replace Comma Splices with Semicolons

A comma splice, in simple terms, is an error that occurs when two independent clauses are connected with only a comma. This common punctuation mistake can lead to confusion and disrupt the flow of your writing.

To fully comprehend what a comma splice is, it’s important to first understand independent clauses. An independent clause is essentially a group of words that contains both a subject and verb and can stand alone as its own sentence. 

For example:

I love dogs.

She went to the store.

The problem arises when you try to join two independent clauses together using just a comma — this creates what we call “comma splices.” 

Here’s an example: 

I love dogs, she went to the store. 

As you can see from this instance, the use of only a comma between these two separate thoughts makes for awkward reading.

Luckily there are several ways you could correct comma splices:

  • Use periods: You could simply break up the sentences with periods; e.g., “I love dogs. She went to the store.”
  • Add conjunctions: Another option would be adding conjunctions (and, nor, but, so, etc.) after the comma; e.g., “I love dogs, and she went to the store.”
  • Use semicolons: This is where semicolons come in handy. They can be used to join two related independent clauses, e.g., “I love dogs; she went to the store.”
 
Key Takeaway: Semicolons bring clarity to complex lists and series; they separate items containing commas, like city-country pairs. They also help divide larger ideas in a sentence filled with commas for better readability. Lastly, when introducing second clauses with adverbs or short phrases, semicolons maintain a smooth flow of thoughts.

Examples of When to Use a Semicolon

Here are some examples of when to use a semicolon in sentences:

  1. To join two closely related independent clauses:
    • She loves to read; he prefers to watch movies.
  2. To separate items in a list when the items themselves contain commas:
    • I need to visit Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and Barcelona, Spain.
  3. To clarify a complex list:
    • The conference will be held in New York, New York; London, England; and Sydney, Australia.
  4. To connect independent clauses when the second clause starts with a conjunctive adverb:
    • She wanted to go to the party; however, she had too much work to finish.
  5. To separate elements in a series that contain commas:
    • The team included John, the captain; Sarah, the manager; and Mark, the coach.
  6. To join two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction when there are already commas within the clauses:
    • The conference was informative, but it was also exhausting; everyone learned a lot.
  7. In quotations to separate items in a list within dialogue:
    • For the picnic, we need sandwiches; chips; and fruit, such as apples, bananas, and oranges.
  8. To emphasize a contrast or opposition:
    • The weather was cold; nonetheless, they went for a hike.
  9. In technical or academic writing, when citing multiple sources within a single sentence:
    • Several studies (Smith, 2020; Johnson, 2019) support this theory.
  10. When expressing dates:
    • The event took place on December 25, 2022; it was a memorable day.
  11. When giving ratios or proportions:
    • The recipe calls for a 2:1 flour-to-water ratio; this ensures a perfect dough consistency.
  12. In legal writing to separate clauses or sections within a document:
    • Section 2.1; Clause A states the company’s confidentiality policy.
  13. To connect clauses in a sentence that already contains commas for other purposes:
    • The car, which was red, belonged to John; the bicycle, on the other hand, was mine.
  14. In scientific writing to separate related ideas:
    • The experiment yielded valuable results; the researchers were able to confirm their hypothesis.
  15. In business writing to separate items in a series:
    • The quarterly report covered revenue, expenses, and profitability; market trends; and future projections.
  16. To separate two clauses when the first clause contains a list:
    • She visited the store to buy groceries: eggs, milk, and bread; and household supplies.
  17. In historical writing to denote different time periods or eras:
    • The Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries); The Enlightenment (18th century).

Remember that while semicolons have various uses, they should be used sparingly and appropriately in your writing to enhance clarity and readability.

When Not to Use a Semicolon

Now that you know when to use a semicolon, it’s also essential that you understand when it’s not appropriate to do so.

A key rule of thumb involves conjunctions — connecting words such as “but,” “and,” or “so.” 

When you have these in your sentence, a comma should take precedence over a semicolon. 

For example:

Judy jogged on the pavement; but it wasn’t good for her knees.

This usage would be incorrect because there’s no need for a semicolon before “but.” 

The correct version would employ a comma instead:

Judy jogged on the pavement, but it wasn’t good for her knees.

However, if you remove the conjunction “but”, then bringing back the semicolon would be entirely appropriate:

Judy jogged on the pavement; it wasn’t good for her knees.

One of the most common punctuation mistakes many writers make is using a semicolon to introduce lists or separate dependent clauses that are not closely related. 

For instance:

Incorrect: No one applied for the post; even though it was advertised excessively.

In this sentence, “even though” introduces a dependent clause which makes it inappropriate to use a semicolon before it. The correct version should look like this:

Correct: No one applied for the post, even though it was advertised excessively.

Semicolons should only be used between two independent clauses that are closely related in thought and can stand alone as complete sentences if separated by periods. 

Here’s an example of proper usage:

Correct: I like the USA; the food is delicious, and the people are friendly.

This sentence contains two independent clauses connected with relevant content, making them suitable candidates for separation with a semicolon instead of conjunctions or other punctuation marks.

Remember that accurate punctuation helps your reader understand your message clearly without any confusion caused by ambiguous sentence structures.

4 ways to use a semicolon

Semicolons in Formal Writing and Literature

When it comes to formal writing like old English literature or academic papers, semicolons play a crucial role. They’re more than just an interesting dot above a comma; they bring order and clarity to complex sentences.

The use of semicolons can transform your writing from good to great by adding sophistication without compromising readability. So how does this apply to literature?

In our earlier example of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, you’ll find countless examples of when to use a semicolon masterfully. These punctuation marks help give life (or perhaps an afterlife) to her ghostly tale.

Certain connecting words require a preceding semicolon, especially when trying to create suspense or tension between ideas. This technique is widely used throughout Jackson’s horror narrative, creating those spine-chilling moments we love so much.

But let’s not forget about their functionality either. In cases with long sentences filled with commas — much like many passages within “Hill House” — semicolons may be used instead for separation, ensuring the reader doesn’t get lost while maintaining sentence flow.

FAQs – When to Use a Semicolon

When should a semicolon be used?

  • Use semicolons to connect related independent clauses
  • Use semicolons in a serial list
  • Use semicolons with conjunctive adverbs
  • Use a semicolon to give a wink 😉

In what 3 situations do we use a semicolon?

We use semicolons to link closely related sentences, separate items in complex lists, and fix comma splices.

What is the difference between a semicolon and a colon and when would you use each?

A colon (:) is used to introduce information set up by the previous clause. It’s typically used before a list, example, or explanation. 

A semicolon (;) is used to join related independent clauses together in the same sentence without a conjunction.

Conclusion

Despite their versatility and usefulness, semicolons are often misunderstood. Some writers avoid them, believing they complicate sentences or disrupt flow. However, if you know when to use a semicolon correctly, it can enhance readability and elegance in your writing.

We’ve explored when to use a semicolon and its power in uniting closely related thoughts.

We’ve also navigated through the common errors and when it is not necessary to use them.

So here’s the challenge for you: Go ahead and practice using semicolons correctly. It’s all about making your words count and mastering this tool for precise expression.

Understanding the proper usage of semicolons is a valuable skill for any writer looking to add depth and variety to their work. So don’t shy away from this versatile punctuation mark; embrace it!

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Written by Julia McCoy

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