In this article, we look at how and when to use a semicolon with relevant examples for each use case.
Understanding punctuation is crucial for effective written communication; mastering the semicolon will help you achieve that.
What is a Semicolon?
A semicolon is a punctuation mark that indicates a pause between two main clauses, which is more pronounced than a comma but less pronounced than a period (full stop). This isn’t exactly surprising when you consider what a semicolon looks like; it is basically a period stacked on top of a comma.
Semicolons connect two independent clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences but are related in meaning. Instead of using a period to create two distinct sentences, or a comma alone which might not provide enough separation, a semicolon helps to clarify the relationship between the ideas. It’s a way of saying, “These two thoughts are related; let’s keep them together.”
For example: “They decided to stay at home; the weather forecast predicted heavy rain.”
“They decided to stay at home” is a clear independent clause. “The weather forecast predicated” heavy rain is also an independent clause.
Both could be sentences in their own right. However, the semicolon connects the two independent clauses, explaining the decision to stay at home and the reason behind it, which is the anticipated heavy rain.
What is an independent clause?
To understand semicolons it also helps to understand exactly what an independent clause is.
An independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate (verb) and expresses a complete thought. It can stand alone as a complete sentence because it provides a clear idea and does not depend on any other part of the sentence to make sense.
- “She walked to the store.”
- “The sun set behind the mountains.”
In these examples, “She walked to the store” and “The sun set behind the mountains” are independent clauses because each expresses a complete idea and could function as a standalone sentence.
Semicolons can be used to connect independent clauses that are related. For example: “The sun set behind the mountains; the sky glowed pink and gold.”
These could also be two separate sentences, but we can use a semicolon because the color of the sky is related to the sun setting behind the mountains.
How to Use a Semicolon?
How a semicolon is used in a sentence sits somewhere between the use of a period and a comma. A semicolon essentially functions like an orange traffic signal for closely related sentences, or a pause before the next clause!
Semicolons are most commonly used to join two independent clauses that are related without using a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet).
They don’t represent the end of the sentence, but a pause between two main clauses. Remember, they are stronger than a comma, but not as definitive as a period.
You should therefore not generally use a capital letter after a semicolon because you are still in the middle of the sentence. Capital letters are used at the beginning of a sentence. However, there is an exception when you use a capital letter after a semicolon. This is when the word after the semicolon is a noun or an acronym.
So, now that’s cleared up let’s take a look at when to use a semicolon in a bit more detail.
When to Use a Semicolon
Here are the rules for using semicolons:
To connect two closely related independent clauses
You can use a semicolon to join two related independent clauses. What does that mean in simple terms? You can use a semicolon to divide two separate groups of words that share a common connection.
Usually, these two separate groups of words should also be able to form two complete sentences alone. By using a semicolon you connect the two sentences to form one sentence where the two separate groups of words, or clauses, are related.
“I enjoy hiking; it allows me to connect with nature.”
Here, the semicolon connects two independent clauses, expressing related thoughts about the speaker’s enjoyment of hiking and the reason behind it.
“The sun was setting; the sky turned shades of pink and orange.”
The semicolon connects two closely related independent clauses, describing the scene of the sun setting and its impact on the sky.
“He was running late; traffic was heavier than usual.”
Here, the semicolon links two independent clauses, indicating a cause-and-effect relationship between running late and encountering heavier-than-usual traffic.
In place of a coordinating conjunction
You can use a semicolon in place of a coordinating conjunction like but or and.
Yes, a semicolon is not the only thing that can link two independent clauses, coordinating conjunctions can do that too! However, you should never use a semicolon and conjunction together, it’s either one or the other. For example:
Using a coordinating conjunction: “The weather was bad, so we decided to stay indoors.”
Using a semicolon: “The weather was bad; we decided to stay indoors.”
In this example, the coordinating conjunction “so” is replaced by a semicolon, maintaining a similar meaning and indicating a strong connection between the two independent clauses.
You can’t use a comma in place of a conjunction or semicolon because you’ll end up with a comma splice. A comma splice is an error where two sentences or independent clauses are wrongly connected by a comma alone. Using the above example this would be:
“The weather was bad, we decided to stay indoors.”
This does not read correctly and requires a conjunction or semicolon to link the related ideas succinctly.
In place of a comma
As just mentioned, you can use a semicolon in place of a comma when you want to join two closely related independent clauses without using a coordinating conjunction.
However, you can also use it to replace a comma when you use a coordinating conjunction to link independent clauses that already contain commas. This is to make it easier to read.
Incorrect: “I’m running behind schedule. I’m not going to be able to complete the report, check it for errors, or print it out, nor will I be able to deliver it on time!
Correct: “I’m running behind schedule. I’m not going to be able to complete the report, check it for errors, or print it out; nor will I be able to deliver it on time!
You can see that the two independent clauses are now more clearly divided, which makes the complete sentence more readable.
In a list
You can use a semicolon to separate items in a list.
Semicolons can be used in a list when the items in the list are more complex and already contain commas. This helps to avoid confusion in understanding the division between items in the list. Here’s an example:
Example: “The conference included experts from various fields: Dr. Smith, a biologist; Professor Johnson, an economist; and Ms. Davis, a computer scientist.”
In this example, semicolons are used to separate the people and their corresponding professions in the list. The semicolons help to clearly distinguish who is who and what they do.
With conjunctive adverbs
When using a semicolon with conjunctive adverbs, the semicolon is placed before the conjunctive adverb to connect two closely related independent clauses. The conjunctive adverb is then followed by a comma.
Common conjunctive adverbs include words like however, therefore, nevertheless, consequently, for example, for instance, furthermore, moreover, etc.
Conjunctive adverbs can be used in other parts of the sentence without a semicolon; therefore, the semicolon should only be used to join two independent clauses.
“She didn’t win the competition; nevertheless, she was proud of her performance.”
In this example, the semicolon separates two independent clauses, highlighting a contrast between not winning the competition and still feeling proud of the performance.
Bonus: To create a wink smiley!
I think you probably needed this point after all of the others! Yes, the easiest way to use a semicolon these days is to create a wink smiley. Just use a semicolon followed by a closing bracket and you’ve got it 😉
However, don’t let this distract you from using a semicolon in your proper writing. If you can master the use of punctuation and grammar your English will benefit as a result; knowing when to use a semicolon is a big part of that!
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