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Punctuation Basics: How to Use the Semicolon

Punctuation Series: Colons | Commas | Dashes | Semicolons

This article marks the start of a series about English punctuation. I’m embarrassed to say that, despite having a graduate degree, I’m still uncertain about the usage of certain punctuation marks. As I practice writing on a regular basis, this deficiency has become more glaring. The natural remedy, of course, is to learn, practice and then teach the concept. Hopefully by engaging in this learning process I can solidify my understanding of these basic concepts and inspire others to do the same.

Semicolon Basics

As punctuation goes, the semicolon is relatively straight-forward. There are two main applications for the semicolon:

  1. As a separator for a list or series when a comma alone is insufficient.
  2. As a way to link two independent clauses that are related.

Remember these two facts and you are well on your way to semicolon mastery.


The Semicolon and Lists

This first application is straightforward: the semicolon is the tool to use when the items in a list or series requires greater clarity.

Examples are the best way to illustrate:

  • I have lived in Seattle, Washington; Boston, Massachusetts; Boise, Idaho; and Chicago, Illinois.
  • John Doe is survived by his wife, Jane Doe, of Miami; two sons, Frank Doe and Chuck Doe; and a sister, Lucy McMillan.
  • The board of directors includes John O’Sullivan, CEO of MegaCorp; Susan Lee, founder of Big Bank Systems; Randall Adams, a consultant; and Betsy Bobbins, partner at Bobbins, Blake & Associates.
  • The library has several films available like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; Definitely, Maybe; and Dude, Where’s My Car?

In each of the above examples, removal of the semicolon can create ambiguity owing to the usage of commas in the item descriptions. The result would be an overabundance of commas; the semicolon reduces that load.

Side note: in the case of the last example, the movie titles, an alternative solution would be to enclose each movie title in quotation marks. As long as the meaning is clear, use the approach that suits your stylistic needs or preferences.


The Semicolon with Independent Clauses

An independent clause is a sentence that can stand on its own (a complete sentence). A period is one punctuation frequently employed to demarcate the end of an independent clause. English, however, provides the writer with a rich and varied toolset of punctuations and grammatical constructions. When presented with two clauses that are related in meaning, the semicolon can be used between the two independent clauses.

For example:

  • I enjoyed the Harry Potter novels; Dumbledore was my favorite character.
  • I didn’t turn in my homework; my schoolbag was stolen.
  • James prefers Picasso; Nancy prefers Degas.

I’m partial to the Associated Press Stylebook's description which says the semicolon indicates “a greater separation of thought and information than a comma can convey but less than the separation that a period implies.”

Using this differentiation between comma, semicolon and period, we can see the semicolon as a medium pause. The period is a “full stop” and the comma is a relatively short pause.

Here again, examples are the best way to demonstrate:

  • I ate a whole pizza for lunch. I’m not worried about calories.
  • I ate a whole pizza for lunch; I’m not worried about calories.
  • I ate a whole pizza for lunch, but I’m not worried about calories.

The example with the comma uses a coordinating conjunction which is typically how a comma is used to link two independent clauses. As you’ll recall from grade school, there are seven coordinating conjunctions. They can be remembered by using the mnemonic “FANBOYS”: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. When using a semicolon, the coordinating conjunction is removed.


Additional Details & Rules

  • You can use conjunctive adverbs and transitional words with the semicolon.

    • Conjunctive adverbs: however, moreover, nevertheless, still, therefore, etc.
    • Transitional words: admittedly, consequently, even so, in fact, etc.
    • Note that there is some overlap between the two word categories.
    • Example: I ate a whole pizza for lunch; nevertheless, I’m not worried about calories.
  • Don’t capitalize the start of the second independent clause unless the initial word is a proper noun (or it's the pronoun "I" which would normally be capitalized).

    • Example: I ate a whole pizza for lunch; I’m not worried about calories.
    • Example: He ate a whole pizza for lunch; he’s not worried about calories.
    • Example: Bart ate a whole pizza for lunch; Bart’s not worried about calories.
  • Colons, like the semicolon, can be used to separate two independent clauses.

    • Most style guides recommend the colon for situations where the two independent clauses are more closely related and where the second clause helps explain or clarify the first clause.
    • Most style guides suggest that the colon sits between the period and the semicolon in this function: more emphatic than the semicolon but less resolute than the period.

I’ve only just scratched the surface on this topic. Naturally, there are innumerable resources online for mastering the semicolon. Here are some resources I found useful:

Good luck using the semicolon; remember, practice makes perfect.

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