When to Use a Semicolon: A Guide to This Quirky But Lovable Punctuation Mark

When to Use a Semicolon: A Guide to This Quirky But Lovable Punctuation Mark

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It’s not quite a comma and it’s not quite a period. 

And in spite of its appearance, it works quite differently than its neighbor, the colon. 

But for those who take the time to learn its quirks, the semicolon is a punctuation mark unparalleled in versatility; properly employed, it can make your prose sound more professional (if slightly pontificating).

Okay, enough of that. But seriously: how do you use a semicolon (;), anyway? And when should you definitely NOT use one?

Read on to learn the ins and outs of this unique little piece of grammatical nuance.

How to use a semicolon, once and for all

Semicolons can be used in four cases. We’ll review each of them and provide examples.

Here’s when to use a semicolon:

  1. To link closely-related independent clauses
  2. To separate two independent clauses that are connected by a transitional phrase or conjunctive adverb
  3. To separate two independent clauses that are connected by a coordinating conjunction if those clauses are very long or already punctuated with commas
  4. To separate items in a serial list that already contains commas

In the majority of cases, a semicolon is used to link two closely-related independent clauses. 

That is, the two statements on either side of the semicolon could totally be sentences all their own, but the semicolon indicates that they’re essentially part of the same idea. The first three semicolon use cases are really just variations on this method, which treats the semicolon as a kind of intermediary punctuation mark, between the period and the comma.

In the last use case, the semicolon is used to separate items in a list because those items have already been strewn with commas, which could lead to a lack of clarity without the employment of another punctuation mark.

To illustrate these use cases, I’ll devise some statements about one of my favorite topics on earth: cheese. Here’s how sentences should look when you use semicolons properly.

1. Linking closely-related independent clauses

Jamie really likes cheese; it may be her favorite food on Earth.

As you can see, these two statements could easily stand on their own with a period in between them. But by using a semicolon, the closeness between the two ideas is reinforced. After all, they’re essentially saying the exact same thing.

2. Linking independent clauses separated by a transitional phrase or conjunctive adverb

Jamie really likes cheese; in fact, it may be her favorite food on Earth.

The transitional phrase “in fact” has been added to the second independent clause, but the two statements can still be joined by a semicolon.

3. Linking independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction for clarity or brevity

Jamie really likes cheeses of all sorts, including both soft-ripened Bries and firm cheddars; but other cheese lovers sometimes stick to a single variety.

The first independent clause in this set already has a comma, which would make using a second comma to separate the clauses a little less clear. 

By using a semicolon, the sentence achieves clarity and also gives the reader a bit of a brain break — the semicolon provides a firmer stop than a comma would, so your reader can take in the whole idea without getting overwhelmed.

4. Separating items in a serial list

Jamie’s list of favorite cheeses spans a wide variety: soft, gooey Bries; firm, sharp cheddars; and all sorts of intermediary options like goat’s milk Gouda.

In this sentence, the serial list includes items that already have commas (“soft, gooey Bries” and “firm, sharp cheddars”). Thus, a semicolon is employed to make the separate list items more distinct.

There’s also, however, a colon (:) in this sentence — which leads us to another important point.

Colon vs. semicolon: What’s the difference?

Many writers get the semicolon confused with its similar-looking, but very differently employed, cousin, the colon. 

Whereas the semicolon has a comma on the bottom, the colon has two vertically aligned dots, and is most commonly used to introduce a list. (That’s what it’s doing in the cheesy example sentence above.)

However, colons can also be used between independent clauses, which can lead to some confusion. But here’s the big difference: when you use a colon before the second independent clause, it needs to explain or introduce the first independent clause… exactly as it does in this sentence. 🙃

When not to use a semicolon

One good time not to use a semicolon: when you need a colon instead. (See what I did there? Okay, I’ll stop. Maybe.)

Yet another common error has to do not with overusing the semicolon, but underusing it. All too often, writers who are just learning how to make edits will employ a comma when they actually need the full weight of a semicolon. 

For example, if you’re trying to link two independent clauses without employing a conjunction, you need a semicolon. To link them with a comma instead is a common error known as a comma splice, which is exemplified below:

INCORRECT (comma splice): The cheese is tasty, it is also rich in calcium.

CORRECT: The cheese is tasty; it is also rich in calcium.

However, it’s also possible to use a semicolon in place of a comma to separate a dependent clause from an independent one. An example:

INCORRECT: Since cheese is delicious and nutritious; you might as well eat it.

CORRECT: Since cheese is delicious and nutritious, you might as well eat it.

The first clause is dependent on the second, which means a semicolon provides too much of a pause in between the two ideas.

Why use a semicolon?

Well, for starters, if you’re a grammar nerd like many of us writer types who cares about grammar rules and grammar tools, it’s just plain old fun to add something new into the mix, not to mention making for some much-needed variety when you’re working on a longer piece. 

Proper semicolon use can make your work sound more sophisticated and give you the opportunity to play with new sentence structures and clause lengths.

But really, if you’re reading this blog post, you probably don’t need much convincing. When it comes to having another tool to master and add to your writing workbox, the real question is: why not? 😉

And yes, the winking emoji is a proper use of the semicolon, too — at least in our book.

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Photo via AnnaStills / Shutterstock 

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