Semicolons

The English language has many different types of punctuation you can use to create different effects in your writing. As there are so many, it can be easy to get them mixed up sometimes. One punctuation mark that can often get misused is the semicolon. Not to worry, though! In this article, we'll discuss what a semicolon is, how you can use it, and how it differs from other pieces of punctuation, such as colons and commas.

Semicolons Semicolons

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Table of contents

    Semicolon Meaning

    So, what is a semicolon?

    A semicolon is a piece of punctuation represented by a comma and a dot (you may recognize the semicolon from its use in the winky face emoji ;) ). Semicolons are typically used to represent a pause in writing or speech that is longer than the pause represented by a comma. On top of this, there are four more specific uses of semicolons, which we'll get to in a bit.

    Before we get into these uses, let's review some general rules for using semicolons in writing.

    Semicolons Winky smiley face StudySmarterSemicolons have three uses aside from the classic winky face.

    Rules for Semicolons

    The rules for using semicolons are similar to those for using any other mid-sentence punctuation. By mid-sentence punctuation, we're referring to a piece of punctuation used within a sentence, i.e., not at the beginning or the end.

    So, let's go over some simple rules:

    • Semicolons appear within sentences, not at the beginning or the end.

    • The first word after a semicolon is not capitalized unless it's a proper noun.

    • A semicolon can't be used as a direct replacement for a comma.

    • Semicolons can be followed by a conjunctive adverb.

      • A conjunctive adverb is an adverb used to link two independent clauses (e.g. however, moreover, hence, also).

    Semicolon Uses and Examples

    Now that we've got some of the simple rules out of the way, we can look at what the uses of semicolons are. There are four different ways that you can use a semicolon in your writing. These are:

    1. To separate items in a list

    2. To connect two related independent clauses

    3. To connect two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb

    We'll now have a look at each of these uses in turn and discuss them with examples.

    Use 1: To Separate Items in a List

    This first use of a semicolon is usually where the confusion with the comma comes in. In a written list, items can be separated by a comma or semicolon. The trick is knowing which one to use and when.

    A semicolon is used to separate longer items or items that include punctuation, while a comma is used to separate short items. Let's have a look at this in some examples.

    Here's an example where a semicolon would be used to separate long items in a list:

    Our plan for the holiday included a lot of bucket list activities: going swimming in the lake; watching the stars at night; climbing a mountain to watch the sunrise from the summit, and; riding horses along the beach.

    Our next example shows us where a semicolon is used to separate items in a list that have internal punctuation.

    There are several places that Yana wanted to visit during her gap year: Petra, Jordan; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Machu Picchu, Peru; and Yellowstone National Park, United States.

    These are the two ways semicolons are used in lists. To ensure we understand where a semicolon is used instead of a comma, let's look at an example of a list with commas.

    Gem was going shopping in the morning and needed to get everything to cook Sunday dinner: nut roast, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, and peas.

    Use 2: To Connect Two Related Independent Clauses

    The second use of semicolons is to connect two related independent clauses. Before we get into this, let's ensure we know what an independent clause is.

    An independent clause is a statement or clause that makes sense on its own. This means that it includes a subject, verb, and either an object or a subject complement (something that adds detail about the subject).

    So, when you have two related independent clauses, you can connect them in one sentence by using a semicolon.

    Remember - when you use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses, the clauses must be related.

    Let's look at a couple of examples of where a semicolon can be used in this way.

    Painting is a trial and error process; mistakes are part of learning.

    Gardening is a good way to practice mindfulness; being amongst trees and plants can be very calming.

    Rose went to the shops; Donna stayed at home to start cooking.

    You might have noticed that each of these sentences could be rephrased to use a coordinating conjunction (e.g., for, and, nor, but, or, yet) and a comma instead of a semicolon.

    A coordinating conjunction is a word that connects different independent clauses in a sentence. The connected clauses must make sense on their own before they are connected. When we use a coordinating conjunction, we also use a comma to create a pause between the two clauses.

    For example:

    Andrew's dogs were noisy at night, so the neighbors usually bang on the door to complain.

    When you use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses instead, you leave out the coordinating conjunction.

    Correct: Rose went to the shops; Donna stayed home to start cooking.

    Incorrect: Rose went to the shops; and Donna stayed at home to start cooking.

    Correct: Rose went to the shops, and Donna stayed at home to start cooking.

    Can you spot where the mistake is in the incorrect example?

    Semicolons Image of a chain StudySmarterSemicolons are used to connect independent clauses - they link parts of sentences together.

    Use 3: To Connect Two Independent Clauses with a Conjunctive Adverb

    The third way a semicolon is used is similar to the way we just discussed. We can use semicolons to connect two independent clauses (like the last way), but with a conjunctive adverb.

    A conjunctive adverb is a type of adverb used to link two independent clauses. An adverb is a word that describes or adds information about a verb, adjective, or another adverb. A conjunctive adverb modifies the two clauses by joining them.

    Some conjunctive adverbs are:

    • however
    • consequentially
    • hence
    • therefore
    • also
    • moreover

    When using conjunctive adverbs with a semicolon, the conjunctive adverb comes after the semicolon and is followed by a comma, which introduces the next independent clause.

    The sentence format is:

    independent clause + ; + conjunctive adverb + , + independent clause

    Now, let's look at some example sentences that use semicolons and conjunctive adverbs.

    Plants in your house can help bring nature indoors; however, they need a lot of care and maintenance.

    I wanted to get some work experience on the farm; moreover, I wanted to spend time with animals.

    Lavender and rosemary have small, delicate flowers; additionally, they have gentle, soothing scents.

    As you can see in these examples, semicolons are only used with a conjunctive adverb when the second independent clause is related to and adds information to the first clause.

    Remember that both clauses have to be independent and make sense on their own.

    Using Semicolons Instead of Commas

    Semicolons can be easily confused with other pieces of punctuation, especially commas. Let's have a look at when we use semicolons instead of commas.

    Both semicolons and commas can be used to separate items in lists. There are simple rules to follow so you can decide whether to use a semicolon or a comma:

    • Use a semicolon between long items

    • Use a semicolon between items that have internal punctuation

    • Use a comma between short items

    Semicolons and commas can also both be used to link clauses together. Here's another list of helpful pointers so you know when to use a semicolon instead of a comma:

    • Semicolons link two independent clauses together without the use of a conjunction

    • Semicolons link two independent clauses together with a conjunctive adverb

    • Commas link independent clauses with subordinate clauses

    • Commas link two independent clauses when a conjunction is used

    • Commas can be used within a clause to separate phrases

    Semicolons vs. Colons

    Another piece of punctuation that often gets confused with a semicolon is a colon. They are two very similar pieces of punctuation to look at: the colon is two dots, one on top of the other (:), and the semicolon is a comma with a dot over the top (;).

    The colon and semicolon can both be used in lists, but for different purposes:

    • Colons introduce lists

    • Semicolons separate longer items within a list

    Colons and semicolons can also both be used to connect related clauses:

    • Semicolons connect two independent clauses without a conjunction

      • E.g. The weather kept getting worse; storms were meant to hit in the evening.

    • Semicolons connect two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb

      • E.g. The weather kept getting worse; however, the forecast said it was meant to brighten up.

    • Colons connect a second sentence or statement to a first one

      • E.g. The weather kept getting worse: Jenny had to change her plans.

    Semicolons - Key Takeaways

    • A semicolon is a punctuation mark represented by a comma with a dot directly over it (;).
    • Semicolons can be used to separate long items or items with internal punctuation in a list, to connect two independent clauses in a sentence, and connect two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb.
    • Semicolons and commas differ because:
      • A semicolon can be used to separate long items in a list, while a comma can be used to separate short items in a list.
      • Semicolons can link two independent clauses, while a comma can link dependent and independent clauses.
    • Semicolons and colons differ because:
      • Semicolons can separate long items in a list, while colons introduce a list.
      • Semicolons can connect two independent clauses without a conjunction or a conjunctive adverb, while a colon can connect two independent clauses or sentences.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Semicolons

    What is an example of using a semicolon?

    A semicolon can be used to connect two related independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction. 


    For example, 'Painting is a trial and error process; mistakes are part of learning different techniques.'

    What are semicolons?

    A semicolon is a piece of punctuation used to separate large items in a list or to connect two related independent clauses.

    What is the purpose of a semicolon?

    Semicolons have three purposes:

    - to separate longer items within a list

    - to link two independent related clauses without a coordinating conjunction

    - to link two independent related clauses with a conjunctive adverb

    Where do you put a semicolon in a sentence?

    A semicolon can be used either in between two complete independent clauses, or between long items in a written list.

    How do you properly use a semicolon?

    A semicolon can be used to separate long items or items with internal punctuation in a list; to connect two related independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction; or to connect two related independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these is a semicolon?

    Which of these is a general use of a semicolon?

    Where can a semicolon appear in a sentence?

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