When to Use a Semicolon
A semicolon may look fancy, but it’s actually quite easy to use. Don’t let the symbol’s intricate shape fool you. Just like a hyphen, period, or question mark, this punctuation mark can improve the clarity of your writing. Unlike other forms of punctuation, the semicolon has a limited number of use cases. Whatever you do, avoid using a semicolon and a comma interchangeably. Semicolons should be used sparingly; for instance, they work well to separate complicated lists and to link independent clauses.
Lists with Too Many Commas
Let’s say you have sentence that contains a list of city names: I’ve lived in Kansas City, Miami, and Denver. Because some cities names repeat in more than one state, you may decide to include the state names in your sentence. You mean to say that you’ve lived in Kansas City, Kansas—not Kansas City, Missouri. To make matters more complicated, if you specify the state for Kansas City, you should probably do the same for the other two cities. Suddenly, the sentence starts to get confusing.
Original Sentence: I’ve lived in Kansas City, Kansas, Miami, Florida, and Denver, Colorado.
Wow! By including all those commas, you haven’t given your reader a clear picture of the places you’ve lived. Someone may have to read your sentence two or three times before they understand your meaning. Luckily, you can use semicolons as super commas to break up your list and save the day.
New Sentence: I’ve lived in Kansas City, Kansas; Miami, Florida; and Denver, Colorado.
No matter what type of content appears in your list, semicolons will help you to separate items with internal punctuation. Let’s say you have a complex list of descriptions. I’ve lived through dry, hot summers. I’ve lived through cold, wet winters. I’ve lived through sunny, mild springs. If you wanted to combine those sentences using commas, things might get complicated. With the help of semicolons, it becomes much easier to make a legible list.
I’ve lived through dry, hot summers; cold, wet winters; and sunny, mild springs.