When to use a Semicolon ; — A Definitive Guide

Illustration of different symbols, with semicolon highlighted in white, and text that says "When to use the semicolon"

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

 

What is a semicolon? Is it a period? Is it a comma? 

Many people think you can use it in place of a period or comma wherever you want, but that’s a mistake.

Some believe it works like a colon, but though it looks similar, they’re quite different.

Well if it isn’t a period, comma, or a colon, what is this punctuation used for?

In this blog, we’ll answer these questions and more as we explore how and when to use a semicolon (;). 

How to Use a Semicolon: The Four Situations

There are four instances in your writing where you can use a semicolon. We’ll give you the list and then break down each case.

  • To link two independent clauses related in context
  • When using a transitional phrase or conjunctive adverb to separate two sentences
  • To connect two clauses separated by a conjunction after using a comma in the first clause
  • In a serial list

Essential Note for ESL Learners:

Three of the four cases where you’ll use a semicolon involve independent clauses so be sure you know, understand, and have mastered the use of clauses before exploring a new form of punctuation. Just because you can use a semicolon doesn’t mean you should.

The clauses on both sides of a semi colon could be sentences on their own. It’s up to you to determine whether the context or ideas of the sentences are related and warrant a semicolon using the rules we’ll define in our when to use a semicolon examples.

Connecting Independent Clauses—If They’re Related

Linking two closely related independent clauses is the primary use for semicolons. This means that the clauses on both sides of a sentence must form complete sentences on their own. In addition, the two clauses must be contextually sound and make sense. In other words, the ideas are connected and logical.

Examples:

  • We’re having Italian for dinner; it’s the perfect cuisine for a celebration.
  • Jerry had gone to work; Terry had left early to fix the shed.
  • Humanity is blind; it can’t predict the future and doesn’t learn from its past.

Remember that we do not capitalize the letter after a semicolon unless it’s a proper noun or ‘I’. The sentences above are examples of independent, grammatically correct sentences.

There are also examples within this category where a semicolon replaces a comma and a conjunction, so be sure to remember the rules of when to use a comma and delete both if using a semicolon.

  • We visited the Mississippi River, and it was flowing faster than any body of water I’d seen before. – Correct
  • We visited the Mississippi River; it was flowing faster than any body of water I’d seen before. – Correct

Last, just because two ideas are conflicting or in opposition, it doesn’t mean that they’re not related. You can still use a semicolon. Basic comma rules still apply, so replace the conjunction ‘but’ and the comma with a semicolon.

  • Some people follow rules, but it’s the ones who don’t that cause change. – Correct
  • Some people follow rules; it’s the ones who don’t that cause change. – Correct

Transitional Phrases or Conjunctive Adverbs with Semicolons

When linking two independent clauses with a transitional phrase or a conjunctive adverb, you can use a semicolon instead of stopping the sentence with a period. Just note that these types of words and phrases appear in other parts of sentences. Only use a semicolon when using them to help join two independent clauses.

Conjunctive Adverb Examples

  • Don’t lean on your partner too much; however, don’t do everything on your own either.
  • She wasn’t at the rehearsal; moreover, she hadn’t shown up to practice in three weeks.
  • We ran every errand my dad asked; also, we stopped at the convenience store for some ice cream.

Transitional Phrase Examples

  • He had never seen a city; in fact, he had never seen a building taller than two stories.
  • She wasn’t a fan of her mother’s rules; even so, she still obeyed them. 
  • It wasn’t her favorite dessert; in other words, she would not eat it. 

Linking Independent Clauses With a Conjunction When a Comma Was Used

This situation seems like a mouthful, but it’s simple. A semicolon in this situation acts as a mental break for a complex sentence. Look at these sentences with commas examples:

  • Bill likes all kinds of sodas, and we have known him to drink them regularly; but his doctor said it’s time to cut back on the simple sugars. 
  • When we go up to the lake, usually around four o’clock, I’ll help Dad mow the lawn; and I’m always sure to leave a large glass of lemonade for him on the counter.
  • In fact, quite oddly, no one uses a manual can opener anymore; but in the Sixties, it was common as electric appliances hadn’t replaced every tool in the kitchen.

Semicolon use in these examples is linked with clarity and the weight of the comma punctuation. By using a semicolon before the conjunction in these sentences, you clarify the sentence and provide a break for the reader. In addition, they show that the pause or punctuation at the semicolon has more weight than the commas.

When to Use a Semicolon in a List

If items or phrases in a list contain commas, then you can use a semicolon to separate the items or phrases. Using semicolons in a list doesn’t happen often, but it’s a great tool to know as it can give clarity to an unreadable sentence. For example:

  • Our vacation plans included having dinner at a very nice (but not too expensive!) restaurant that overlooks the ocean, visiting the ancient ruins in the area, which, by the way, date back to 900 B.C., and walking along the beautiful, rocky shorelines. – Incorrect
  • Our vacation plans included having dinner at a very nice (but not too expensive!) restaurant that overlooks the ocean; visiting the ancient ruins in the area, which, by the way, date back to 900 B.C.; and walking along the beautiful, rocky shorelines. – Correct
  • I’m looking for addresses for our offices in the following cities: Beaumont, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, Salem, Oregon, Boise, Idaho, and Fresno, California. – Incorrect
  • I’m looking for addresses for our offices in the following cities: Beaumont, Texas; Raleigh, North Carolina; Salem, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Fresno, California. –Correct

Did you notice the colon we used in the second example? Read on and we’ll explain why.

 

When to Use A Colon vs Semicolon

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

Colons look similar to semicolons, so there’s sometimes some confusion about the difference in usage between the two.

In the example above, the colon (:) is used to introduce the list of cities, and that’s one of the colon’s primary functions in grammar: introduction. We use a colon to introduce a list of things or to introduce a clause (usually dependent, as in the previous sentence) or statement that makes a point. 

Think of a colon as stating, “This is what I want to say,” or, “This is what I mean.” Whereas, a semicolon is a separation or break between two separate, but related, independent clauses. 

 

Conclusion: Semicolon Punctuation Defined

We’ve covered the four situations where you’ll use a semicolon and explained the difference between when to use a colon and when to use a semicolon. But, perhaps you’re still a little unsure on the subject. 

That’s okay! Semicolons are even confusing for native English speakers. So, let’s summarize the key information.

Remember, semicolons join two independent clauses. Many writers mistakenly try to join independent clauses with only a comma and no coordinating conjunction. This is an error known as a comma splice.

  • I like movies, however, they seem to be using more special effects than focusing on story development lately. – Incorrect (comma splice)
  • I like movies; however, they seem to be using more special effects than focusing on story development lately. – Correct

Writers can also overuse semicolons by trying to join independent clauses with dependent ones using a semicolon.

  • Since movies are still fun and entertaining; you might as well go. – Incorrect
  • Since movies are still fun and entertaining, you might as well go. – Correct

Semicolons are a great tool for advanced ESL writers looking to create more rounded and complex sentences and ideas. And, now that you know when to use a semicolon, you can use this tool to make your writing sound more elegant and balanced. Just be sure you have a mastery of clauses before employing this writing tool.

Have any other thoughts or questions about semicolons? Leave a comment below!

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