It has the power to join two complete thoughts into a single sentence, or to separate items in a series. The semicolon has a controversial history; it has divided grammar enthusiasts as much as it has words. When it comes to using them in your writing, there are some grammar rules everyone should know.
In this article, we'll go over when it's appropriate to use this powerful punctuation mark and when it’s not. Linguistics can be confusing at times, but fret not—we’ve included examples as well to make things a little easier. Let’s get into it.
When is a semicolon used?
A semicolon is most commonly used to link related independent clauses.
An independent clause is a group of words that could stand on its own as a sentence. When two independent clauses are brought together by a semicolon, it means that they are closely related in logic.
I went running this morning; I feel so much better now.
The first clause, "I went running this morning," makes sense on its own. However, the second clause, "I feel so much better now," depends on the first for its meaning. Hence, they're linked to each other using a semicolon. Another example would be:
I'm feeling really tired; I think I'll take a nap.
Still with us? Good. Here’s where it gets a bit more confusing.
A semicolon can be used together with conjunctive adverbs
Conjunctive adverbs (e.g. moreover, nevertheless, therefore) are used to link related independent clauses to each other, much like semicolons. A semicolon can be used to replace a conjunctive adverb; even so, it would not be incorrect to use the two side by side with each other.
Harry ate too much during snack time; therefore, he now has a small appetite for dinner.
However, it is only used to replace conjunctions
Although conjunctions (e.g. and, but, if) are also used to join related independent clauses, they should never be used together with a semicolon.
- Incorrect: My cousin broke his toe bone; but he can still walk.
- Correct: My cousin broke his toe bone; he can still walk.
If you opt for a semicolon in your sentence, it should be used instead of a conjunction—not as a companion.
A semicolon is also commonly used in lists to separate items that have commas within them
This is typically the case when items in a list include added descriptions about them. For example:
She has a particular preference towards furry, muscular and energetic dogs; furless, small and snarling cats; and large, white and adorable hamsters.
The semicolon here clearly clarifies the items on the list—it groups each one with the relevant details and so sets them apart from the rest. Hence, it ensures that the reader isn’t wading in a sea of commas.
Using multiple semicolons in a sentence
How many semicolons are too many? Can I use two or more semicolons in a sentence?
Short answer: You can use as many semicolons as you want!
Within reason, of course. When joining independent clauses or items in a list, the number of semicolons that can be used is dependent on how many clauses or items there are.
When not to use a semicolon
There are definitely times when you should avoid using a semicolon.
Joining two unrelated independent clauses
You should never use a semicolon to join unrelated clauses that could stand on their own (as complete sentences). For example:
- Incorrect: Harry ate too much during snack time; his sister was dancing to Justin Bieber.
In this case, using a conjunction instead of a semicolon would be more appropriate.
- Correct: Harry ate too much during snack time while his sister was dancing to Justin Bieber.
When a dependent clause comes before an independent clause
- Incorrect: When the president arrives; I will wave to him and say hello.
Dependent clauses, unlike independent clauses, do not express a full thought. The one here, “When the president arrives”, cannot stand on its own as a complete sentence. Hence, a comma would be more appropriate than a semicolon in this case.
- Correct: When the president arrives, I will wave to him and say hello.
When a colon should be used instead
Using a semicolon when a colon should have been used instead is a common mistake made even by grammar aficionados. Colons are used to join sentences only to introduce or define something, such as a quotation, an example, or—as in this case—a list.
- Incorrect: “After a long wait, dinner was finally ready; roasted potatoes, braised lamb rack and pumpkin pie!”
- Correct: “After a long wait, dinner was finally ready: roasted potatoes, braised lamb rack and pumpkin pie!”
Semicolons and quotes
Where do you use a semicolon in quote marks?
Semicolons go outside quotation marks except when the semicolon is part of the quote.
He replied that his favourite book series is “Harry Potter”; his girlfriend prefers Twilight.
Jerry said, “I can’t make it to the office lunch later; I need to tend to my garden.”
How to make sure you are using semicolons properly
Test for semicolon usage
If you can't easily remove it without disrupting the flow of the sentence, then you might need to use that semicolon. Take this sentence, for example: “I’m going to Boston, Massachusetts; Nashville, Tennessee; and then I’m ending my road trip off in Los Angeles, California.”
If the semicolons were to be removed, it would end up in a confusing barrage of names and commas. Exhibit A: “I’m going to Boston, Massachusetts, Nashville, Tennessee, and then I’m ending my road trip off in Los Angeles, California.”
However, if you're not sure whether or not you should use a semicolon, it's usually best to leave it out.
To make sure you're using them correctly, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- The first word after a semicolon should never be capitalized, unless it is a proper noun (i.e. a name).
- Make sure the two clauses are closely related. If they're not, you might be better off using a conjunction or a comma, or leaving them as two separate sentences.
- Always check if the clauses you have included are independent. If not, it’s best to use a conjunction, a conjunctive adverb or a comma, whichever appropriate.
- Avoid overusing semicolons—they can be powerful tools, but if you use them too much, they'll lose their impact.
The semicolon is one of the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks; people often use a semicolon when they should be using a comma, and vice versa.
However, in the right context, semicolons can be a useful tool. By understanding when to use one and following its sacred rules, you can make your writing more clear, accurate, and concise.