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How to Use a Semicolon


The semicolon may be the most underused punctuation mark. Using it appropriately will help improve your writing. Continue reading to learn its three main uses.

 

The Point

  • The semicolon is most often used between independent clauses.

  • It suggests a pause that is stronger than a comma, but not as strong as a period.

  • It is also used between items in a list.

 

Between independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction

If you have two complete sentences that are closely related? If it is possible to connect the two with a coordinating conjunction, such as and, or, but, or yet, consider using a semicolon after the first, rather than a period. Or, perhaps you've already written an overly complex compound sentence. Omit the coordinating conjunction and replace it with a semicolon. Here is an example of how connecting two short sentences using a semicolon can help the writing flow better, particularly because a semicolon signals a shorter pause than a period. Note that the clause after the semicolon begins with a lower case letter.

The forecast called for rain all day. We went to the beach anyway.

The forecast called for rain; we went to the beach anyway.

This example works because we could also use a coordinating conjunction and the resulting sentence would make sense, grammatically and logically.

The forecast called for rain all day, but we went to the beach anyway.

Here is an example of an unwieldy compound sentence that would benefit from a semicolon:

The adults, including my older brother, who was home from college, sat inside talking about politics and religion, watching a baseball game, and eating snacks, and the older children played football in the yard while making sure my two-year-old cousins stayed out of trouble.

And the improved version:

The adults, including my older brother, who was home from college, sat inside talking about politics and religion, watching a baseball game, and eating snacks; the older children played football in the yard while making sure my two-year-old cousins stayed out of trouble.

Don't use a semicolon if the sentences are not closely related. Although it would make grammatical sense to replace the semicolon in the example below with a conjunction, there is no logical relationship between the statements.

The forecast called for rain all day; there is a monkey at the beach.

The forecast called for rain all day, and there is a monkey at the beach.


Between independent clauses when using a conjunctive adverb

A conjunctive adverb is an adverb that expresses a relationship between two independent clauses. Examples include however (contradiction), therefore (consequence), similarly (comparison), and furthermore (addition). It must be included in the second independent clause; it typically appears at the beginning. Use a semicolon to separate the two clauses, and offset the conjunctive adverb with a comma (or commas).

Our departure was delayed by 2 hours due to a mechanical problem; therefore, we missed our connecting flight.

My wife and I introduced Jennifer and Tom; we were not, however, invited to their wedding.

In lists with internal commas

Typically, items in a list are separated by commas:

We saw giraffes, lions, tigers, snakes, lizards, and bears at the zoo.

Sometimes, however, one or more of the items will have a comma of its own. For clarity, use the semicolon to separate the main items in the list.

At the zoo we visited the African Safari and Australian Outback exhibits, as well as the reptile house.

At the zoo we saw giraffes, lions, and elephants in the African Safari exhibit; kangaroos and koalas in the Australian Outback exhibit; and pythons, Komodo dragons, and Gila monsters in the reptile house.

These same rules apply with seriated lists or with bulleted lists (except when each item in the list in an independent clause.


Making better use of the semicolon is sure to help the clarity and flow of your writing. If you'd like to develop a stronger understanding of punctuation or otherwise improve your writing skills, book a free consultation to see how I can help. For more writing tips, follow @koswritingsupport on Instagram.

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