Many people don’t really know the rules about when to use a semicolon versus a colon. The differences are very small, and many people simply don’t want to take the time to master the use of these two very similar and confusing punctuation marks!
But there is another reason. The proper use of commas overlaps with the proper use of semicolons and colons. Oftentimes, it is simply up to the writer to decide which one is appropriate.
Let me use Kurt Vonnegut as an example of a famous writer who “hated” semicolons. Later in his life, this incredibly successful writer wrote a few lines that, well, pretty much tanked the use of this punctuation mark. At the end of his book A Man Without a Country, he says semicolons represent “absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Ouch!
So why do we care about when to use a semicolon? Because, as even Vonnegut knew, they have their place. I think that what he was really condemning was the overuse of semicolons. When a writer uses semicolons constantly, it looks—for lack of a better word—pretentious. Very often you can use a period or a comma instead of a semicolon.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and agree with Vonnegut, as well as several other authorities. Use both colons and semicolons sparingly.
That being said, let’s dive into some basic rules surrounding this mysterious grammatical tool.
What Is A Semicolon?
As you can see, a semicolon is a period above a comma. It is interesting to note that fact, because it is actually quite a good explanation of how a semicolon functions. It is weaker than a period, but stronger than a comma.
Whereas a period indicates a full stop and a comma indicates a slight pause, the semicolon indicates a pause that is greater than a comma, but not as great as a period. It is a sort of “super-comma.”
When to Use a Semicolon: Rule #1
Semicolons are used to connect two independent clauses (i.e., full sentences), whether or not a conjunction is used. Although a period could easily be used—as each sentence can stand on its own—a semicolon can be used to indicate a closer connection between the two sentences.
Here’s how to construct a sentence with a semicolon:
- Full sentence + Semicolon + Full sentence that is closely related to the first full sentence
That being said, semicolons are more often used without a conjunction. With a conjunction, a comma would suffice. Here are two examples that are both correct:
He wanted to get the promotion; but he was unwilling to give up time with his family. (with a semicolon)
He wanted to get the promotion, but he was unwilling to give up time with his family. (with a comma)
When to Use a Semicolon vs. a Colon
Notice that there is a distinction here between semicolons and colons.
- A semicolon is used to combine two independent clauses/full sentences. Neither clause can be a phrase or fragment.
- A semicolon does not have to clarify or amplify anything. It is simply two complete sentences that could stand on their own, but the writer wants to indicate a closer relationship between the two sentences. (This is also why periods or commas can so easily be used instead of semicolons. So remember not to overuse the semicolon!)
- A colon is used when an independent clause is followed by a dependent OR independent clause—as long as the second clause clarifies or amplifies the first clause.
When to Use a Semicolon: Rule #2
If conjunctive adverbs or coordinating conjunctions are used to introduce the second sentence, a semicolon should be used between sentences. The semicolon must always be placed before the conjunction.
Examples of conjunctive adverbs are however, therefore, indeed, hence, thus, accordingly, and besides.
If other transitional phrases, such as that is, for example, or namely are used, they may be preceded by a semicolon. It’s not necessary, but a semicolon can be used.
Also, in both of the above situations, a comma would likely follow the transitional phrase. However, if the flow of the sentence is better served by not using a comma, that is also OK.
She wanted to take the cooking class; however, when she got to the class she found out that it was booked solid.
I love winter weather; however driving in snow is not my favorite pastime.
I love the summer but; the heat sometimes gets to me.
Remember, the semicolon always goes BEFORE the conjunction or transitional phrase.
When to Use a Semicolon: Rule #3
If a series of items contain commas or other punctuation within the series itself, you need to use a semicolon for clarity.
The winners were from multiple cities: Hollywood, Florida; Paris, Texas; Rome, Georgia; and Amsterdam, New York.
The winners were from multiple cities: Hollywood, Florida, Paris, Texas, Rome, Georgia, and Amsterdam, New York.
Do you see how utterly confusing the incorrect version above is? This is a great way to remember this rule. When there are commas within the items in a list, you MUST use the semicolon to separate the items, or the reader will be left very confused.
Final Thoughts on When to Use a Semicolon
Now these are not the only rules surrounding the use of semicolons; but they are the most important and prevalent rules that apply to writing your piece.
I hope this helps you better understand how and when to use a semicolon. Just remember not to overuse it, because you don’t have to prove to anyone how smart you are! Streamlined writing is best, but when you need to use a semicolon, refer back to this easy explanation and our Professional Writing lessons for guidance.