The Semicolon: When and How to Use It Properly

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.

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

Connecting Two Related Sentences

When you have two independent clauses, you typically write them as two complete sentences. As you can imagine, in some cases, two sentences may contain related ideas. When that happens, you can link them together with a semicolon. 

Original Sentences: Dan lives on a farm. He’s the handyman. 

Because the two sentences above closely relate to one another, you may decide to combine them. By doing so, you’re letting the readers know that they should pause between the clauses, but not for a full stop, as they would with a period. 

New Sentence: Dan lives on a farm; he’s the handyman.

In the example above, you’re taking two complete sentences and joining them with a semicolon. As a result, the second independent clause no longer requires a capital H. Instead, you’ve joined the two sentences into one super-sentence with only one capitalized letter. 

Conjunctive Adverbs and Transitions

To tell you the truth, you’ve already learned both of the use cases for a semicolon. It’s that simple! Still, you may decide to add some style to your super-sentence by dressing it up at the point of contact. Where the two sentences link together, feel free to add a conjunctive adverb or a transition. 

Here are a few examples of conjunctive adverbs:

  • However
  • Moreover
  • Likewise
  • Nevertheless
  • Certainly
  • Consequently

 

Here are a few examples of transitional phrases:

  • In addition
  • In other words
  • To put it differently
  • First of all
  • In summary

 

When you use a semicolon with a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase, you should place the semicolon after the first clause. Next, add the conjunctive adverb or transition. After that, insert a comma. Finish up with the second clause. 

Example: Semicolons go between independent clauses; in other words, they link two full sentences together. 

In the sentence above, you see two independent clauses. 1) Semicolons go between independent clauses. 2) They link two full sentences together. These ideas are connected by a semicolon, a transitional phrase, and a comma. In this case, the transitional phrase is “in other words.”

Coordinating Conjunctions

Here’s the trickiest part of using semicolons. You’ll need to know the difference between coordinating conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs. If a coordinating conjunction connects two clauses, you can’t use a semicolon. On the other hand, if a conjunctive adverb connects two clauses, you must use a semicolon. Tricky, indeed! 

Let’s combine the following two sentences.

Jill likes coffee. She hates tea. 

If you combine the sentences with a coordinating conjunction, you cannot use a semicolon. 

Jill likes coffee because she hates tea. 

Jill likes coffee, but she hates tea. 

Jill likes coffee, and she hates tea.

Jill likes coffee, so she hates tea.

If you combine the sentences with a conjunctive adverb, you must use a semicolon. 

Jill likes coffee; however, she hates tea.

Jill likes coffee; conversely, she hates tea.

Rules to Remember

  • When you use a semicolon, do not capitalize the next word unless it’s a proper noun
  • Don’t include a space before the semicolon
  • Use a semicolon in a list or series that contains internal punctuation
  • Use a semicolon to join one complete thought to another
  • There’s no limit to the number of semicolons you can use in a sentence
  • Don’t use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction
  • When you use a transitional phrase or conjunctive adverb after a semicolon, be sure to follow it with a comma

 

Sources:

  1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semicolon
  2. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/semicolon/
  3. https://www.wikihow.com/Use-a-Semicolon

The Word Counter is a dynamic online tool used for counting words, characters, sentences, paragraphs, and pages in real time, along with spelling and grammar checking.