Semicolon (;) When to Use a Semicolon in English

Last Updated on May 11, 2023

Much like colons, semicolons can become a little confusing. So, we’ve put together this helpful guide that should tell you everything you need to know about what they are, when you should use them, when you shouldn’t use them, and provide you with some key points to remember so you never forget the correct use of a semicolon again!

Understanding semicolons is a difficult thing. So, we’ll take you through different cases of using semicolons correctly and incorrectly, discuss some more nuanced rules surrounding them, show you some more examples, and then quiz you on everything semicolon related to see how you get on. Sound good? Then read on!

The Semicolon (;)

A semicolon is a punctuation mark that is used to separate complicated information in a list, or it is used to link two independent clauses that refer to similar ideas together. It is quite similar to the colon (:) but it looks slightly different (;) and it has some unique uses too.

What Is A Semicolon?

A semicolon (;) looks like a full stop on top of a comma and, in fact, it has some similarities with both of these punctuation marks. However, it can’t be used to replace either one of them. In addition, even though it looks a lot like a colon (:) and even has a very similar name, their uses in a sentence also differ significantly.

Writers turn to semicolons most often when they want to create a pause in the text; this pause will be longer than the one created by a comma but shorter than the one caused by a full stop. A semicolon also has a variety of other important functions. So, if you aren’t sure about semicolons, there’s no need to be scared or to try to only write texts with commas and full stops, avoiding it. After reading this article you’ll be able to confidently insert the marks (;) into any piece of writing you produce.

Learn more about the difference between a colon and a semicolon

History and Origin of the Semicolon (;)

The semicolon, a punctuation mark that separates elements in a sentence, has a fascinating history that dates back over five centuries. Its origin can be traced to Italy in 1494, when an Italian printer named Aldus Manutius first conceived and used the semicolon in his work. Manutius was born near Rome and later migrated to Venice, where he opened his print shop.

During the Renaissance, the use of punctuation marks evolved, and the semicolon played a significant role. The semicolon served as a pause more extended than a comma and shorter than a colon. This unique function was reflected in its form, which combines half of a comma and half of a colon.

The invention of the semicolon was further developed in the 8th century in Germany. Charlemagne, a renowned king, ordered a monk named Alcuin to create a unified alphabet that could be easily read by all. Although the semicolon’s purpose has changed and developed over time, its original intent as a pause between two related statements remains.

In summary, the semicolon:

  • Originated in Italy in 1494
  • Was invented by Aldus Manutius
  • Represented a midpoint between a comma and a colon
  • Was developed further in the 8th century by Alcuin, a monk ordered by Charlemagne

As a unique punctuation mark with a rich history, the semicolon continues to serve various grammatical functions and holds its place within the world of literature and writing.

Key Points to Remember When Using a Semicolon

  • You use a semicolon to connect independent clauses that have similar ideas (but you do not use a coordinating conjunction between them).
  • You use a semicolon in a list with additional information to make it clearer for the reader.
  • Semicolons show equality, colons show emphasis.
  • Use commas for separating simple lists, use semicolons for complicated ones.
  • Use commas with a coordinating conjunction, don’t use semicolons with a coordinating conjunction.

When To Use a Semicolon

Lists and Series

Unlike a colon, which is usually used to introduce the list, a semicolon is used to separate information within a list. Here’s an example of a list that would simply require a colon and commas to be properly punctuated:

  • Can you bring three items back from the store: apples, milk, and chocolate?

Because it is a simple list above, a colon and commas work just fine. If they provided additional information about each individual item in the list, it would need semicolons instead. Like this:

  • Can you bring three items back from the story: apples for our dessert tomorrow night; milk for the children’s cereal tomorrow morning; and chocolate for a bit of a treat tonight?

Notice how a colon was used to start the list, but a semicolon thereafter. That’s because typically in lists, it is the commas that a semicolon replaces, not the colon itself. Although it would have been grammatically correct if you removed the emphasis in the first part of the sentence to write something like this:

  • Can you bring me apples for our dessert tomorrow night; milk for the children’s cereal tomorrow morning; and chocolate for a bit of a treat tonight?

Because we have removed the emphasis of the list style (“three items”), you can just use semicolons without a colon being necessary.

Independent Clauses

Just like a colon, you can use a semicolon to join two ideas together. The difference is, a colon is used to emphasize the second part of the sentence after the colon, but you use a semicolon to show that the ideas are connected and are of equal weight in terms of their importance in the sentence. Here’s how it would work:

  • It was a lovely day out; the sun was shining down, reflecting off the ocean’s waves.

The semicolon here shows that it connects the two independent clauses, and they are equally important. If we wrote it like this:

  • It was a lovely day out: the sun was shining down, reflecting off the ocean’s waves

We would show that the second part of the sentence was more important than the first, which might not be the message we want to send to our readers.

Remember when using a semicolon to connect two ideas together, we are saying they are equally important ideas of the same value.

Conjunctive Adverbs

Semicolons can also be used before conjunctive adverbs such as “however,” “therefore,” “moreover,” or “thus.” These adverbs help to establish a relationship between two independent clauses. In this case, the semicolon precedes the conjunctive adverb, and a comma follows it. Here’s an example:

  • She wanted to go for a walk; however, the weather was not cooperating.

In summary, knowing when and how to use semicolons can greatly enhance the clarity and flow of your writing. They help to connect related independent clauses, separate items in complex lists or series, and join clauses using conjunctive adverbs, making your sentences more effective and engaging.

When Not to Use a Semicolon

The most common mistake that people make is when they use a semicolon in place of a colon or comma. These are the two major ways you will accidentally misuse a semicolon. So, we’ll highlight the differences so you don’t make the mistakes that most people do.

Mixing Semicolons and Colons

This is the most common mistake to make, because they are so similar in terms of how they look, and in how they function within a sentence. The easiest way to remember the difference is that you should only use colons to introduce lists, but you can use semicolons as part of a list. When connecting two independent clauses as in the examples above, colons show emphasis, and semicolons show equality in terms of their importance.

Semicolons vs. Commas

The second most common mistake writers make with semicolons is mixing them up with commas. This is most common in lists following a colon. If the information in the list is complicated because it supplies additional information, then a semicolon is necessary. You use a comma when the list is simple. Here’s how they would both look correctly:

  • You will need to bring these items: a pencil, a notebook, and an eraser. (Correct)
  • You will need to bring these items: a pencil for completing the written part of the exam; a notebook for you to jot down any additional information you require; and an eraser to correct any mistakes that you make. (Correct)

You might also wonder why we don’t use a comma instead of a semicolon when connecting two independent clauses. The major reason is that semicolons show the two are connected and equally important, but you don’t use a coordinating conjunction between the two. When you use a coordinating conjunction, you use a comma instead of a semicolon. Like this:

  • The students completed the exam; the teacher marked their homework. (Correct)
  • The students completed the exam, whilst the teacher marked their homework. (Correct)

Don’t Use Semicolons If You Have a Dependent Clause before an Independent Clause

If you have a dependent clause in a sentence, don’t use a semicolon. The reason is pretty obvious: you simply don’t need to separate a dependent clause from an independent one that much. In fact, if you make such a big pause that a semicolon suggests, you’ll only make your writing more confusing. Nothing more than a comma is needed.

For example:

  • Even though Jack ran as fast as he could; he still couldn’t outrun Ryan and ended up finishing second. (Incorrect)
  • Even though Jack ran as fast as he could, he still couldn’t outrun Ryan and ended up finishing second. (Correct)

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Semicolon vs. Others

Semicolon vs. Colon

Semicolons and colons both function as separators in sentences but have different roles. While semicolons separate independent clauses that are closely related, colons introduce lists, elaborations, or explanations. Here are two examples to illustrate their differences:

  • Semicolon: She loves gardening; her plants thrive under her care.
  • Colon: Their movie selection consisted of three genres: action, comedy, and romance.

Semicolon vs. Comma

Semicolons and commas both separate elements in a sentence, but their usage isn’t the same. Commas are used to separate independent clauses when combined with coordinating conjunctions (e.g., and, but, or), whereas semicolons link two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction. Here are examples for comparison:

  • Comma: She went to the store, and she bought some groceries.
  • Semicolon: She went to the store; she bought some groceries.

A comma is also used to separate items in a list, whereas a semicolon separates items in a series containing internal commas. For example:

  • Comma: The ice cream flavors available are chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.
  • Semicolon: The conference attendees were from New York, New York; Austin, Texas; and Seattle, Washington.

Semicolon vs. Dash

Semicolons and dashes can both be used to provide clarity and division in sentences. However, the style they provide is different. Semicolons create a smoother, more understated separation, while dashes create a more abrupt break. Here are some examples to demonstrate their differences:

  • Semicolon: He has a varied skill set; this makes him valuable to the team.
  • Dash: He has a varied skill set – this makes him valuable to the team.

The em dash is also used to set off parenthetical information, like an aside or additional information about a sentence. Here’s an example:

  • Dash: The new puppy – a playful golden retriever – immediately became the family’s favorite.

Common Semicolon Mistakes and How to Avoid

As we already mentioned, the most common mistakes are almost always to do with mixing semicolons up with either colons or commas. So we’ll inspect those again with some specific examples for you to see why it is wrong, and we’ll remind you briefly about how you can remember to avoid these common grammar mistakes.

In Place of Colons

There are two reasons that you should use a colon to connect ideas: to emphasize the second idea over the first, or to connect with a dependent clause. With semicolons, only use them to connect two independent clauses that are equally important. In both cases, the two ideas should relate to one another.

You should also use colons to introduce a list, and semicolons as part of a complicated list where additional information has been provided about the items. So, look at these examples and see if you can spot the problems based on the rules we have discussed:

1) I had pasta last night; chicken tonight. (Incorrect)

2) I’m heading to the park after work: it’s Christmas in a few weeks. (Incorrect)

3) I’ll need you to pick up these five things; my lunch, my water bottle, my stapler, my pen, and my laptop. (Incorrect)

Did you spot all the problems? Here are all the mistakes that were made.

1) The first one should have been a colon, because ‘chicken tonight’ is a dependent clause. Like this:

  • I had pasta last night: chicken tonight. (Correct)

2) This one was a trick to see if you remembered the fundamental part about colons and semicolons: the ideas must always be related! Because they are not in this case, a period is better used:

  • I’m heading to the part after work. It’s Christmas in a few weeks. (Correct)

3) We used the semicolon incorrectly, only a colon should introduce a list. Like this;

  • I’ll need you to pick up these five things: my lunch, my water bottle, my stapler, my pen, and my laptop. (Correct)

In Place of Commas

The second most common mistake involving semicolons is the comma splice, which occurs when two independent clauses are incorrectly joined with a comma instead of a semicolon or coordinating conjunction.

We can use a comma to connect two independent clauses only when we use a coordinating conjunction. We can use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction.

Second, we use commas in simple lists, and we use semicolons in lists with additional information. See if you can spot the problems below:

1) I like ice cream; but my sister prefers candy. (Incorrect)

2) I need four things from the store: cheese; wine; bread; and chicken. (Incorrect)

Here’s what was wrong:

1) We’ve used the coordinating conjunction ‘but’ so we need to use a comma, not a semicolon. If we didn’t use ‘but’ then a semicolon would be fine. Here’s how we might write them both correctly:

  • I like ice cream, but my sister prefers candy. (Correct)

OR

  • I like ice cream; my sister prefers candy. (Correct)

2) The list isn’t providing any additional information, so we should use commas. If we added more information, then we could use semicolons instead. Here’s how they’d both look:

  • I need four things from the store: cheese, wine, bread, and chicken. (Correct)

OR

  • I need four things from the store: cheese to go on top of the pasta; wine for drinking with dinner; bread for the soup; and chicken for tomorrow. (Correct)

How To Use a Semicolon with Quotation Marks

Now that you can be confident with how semicolons work in sentences and what their functions are, there’s only one question remaining: what happens if you have both a semicolon and quotation marks?

This is important enough to look at separately from the above section. You can use colons to introduce quotations, but you can’t use semicolons for this. However, sometimes you might find that you need to use a semicolon right after a quotation, so where does it go then?

According to the rules of English grammar, semicolons, unlike commas and full stops, always go outside of the quotation marks. And, if you are quoting someone and the phrase you chose ends in a semicolon, you don’t have to put it at all. Most people would naturally put it inside the quotation marks as you might a comma, but this is incorrect. Here’s how it should look, outside the quotation marks:

  • The doctor looked at the cases that were “most serious”; he ignored the cases that were mild.

Here you show that “most serious” was the quote the doctor used, but you then connect that idea to the second part of the sentence. You should always include semicolons outside of the quotation marks, and never to introduce a quote. When introducing a quote, use a colon.

More example:

  • When Tyler started panicking ten minutes before the final test, Alice could only mutter, “I told you”; she knew this would start an argument but, after having spent last night hopelessly trying to make him study instead of watching TV, she couldn’t help it.

Semicolon Examples and Tips

In writing, using a semicolon can be helpful to clarify relationships between ideas, provide variety in sentence structure, and improve the flow of the text. Here are some examples and tips on using semicolons effectively:

Semicolons in Lists

Another use for semicolons is separating items in a list, particularly when the items themselves contain commas. This can help to avoid confusion and make the list easier to read. For example:

  • Timmy wanted a few things from the burger place: a huge burger with tomato sauce; fries with extra salt; a milkshake with chocolate sprinkles; and ice cream with strawberry sauce.
  • If you’re coming over, can you fetch me a few things: the hoodie I lent you last week; my old cell phone that’s at your place; and something sweet for a snack.

In these cases, using semicolons instead of commas helps to distinguish between the separate items of the list and clarify their structure.

Independent Clauses

One common use of semicolons is to join two closely related independent clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences. By using a semicolon, writers can emphasize the close connection between the two ideas without creating a run-on sentence. For example:

  • The snow was falling; children were already building snowmen.
  • The pasta was too spicy; Emily had to fetch some milk over.

In these examples, the semicolon helps to highlight the relationships between the different ideas and provide a smoother transition between them.

Common Mistakes and Tips

Some common mistakes with semicolons involve confusing them with other punctuation marks. Be mindful of where to place semicolons, and remember they are not interchangeable with commas or colons. For instance, avoid using a semicolon where a comma should be:

  • Incorrect: She loves reading; cooking; and hiking.
  • Correct: She loves reading, cooking, and hiking.

On the other hand, using a semicolon where a colon is more appropriate could also lead to confusion:

  • Incorrect: She has three hobbies; reading, cooking, and hiking.
  • Correct: She has three hobbies: reading, cooking, and hiking.

Moreover, when using transitional words or phrases like “however,” “for example,” “nevertheless,” and “on the other hand,” ensure that the semicolon is used correctly to join the related independent clauses.

In conclusion, understanding the proper uses of semicolons and incorporating them appropriately in writing can result in more clarity, variety, and improved flow for the reader.

Semicolon in Various Styles

The semicolon, a versatile punctuation mark, is used effectively in different writing styles and serves a variety of purposes. With its unique ability to create connections and separate ideas, writers can achieve clarity and sophistication by incorporating it into their work.

In academic writing, semicolons are often used to connect closely related independent clauses, conveying complex ideas in a concise manner. For example:

  • The participants completed the survey; the results were analyzed using statistical software.

When dealing with extensive lists containing multiple elements or sub-elements, semicolons can help organize information and ensure readability. Consider the following:

  • The research team included experts from various fields: sociology, which focuses on social behavior; psychology, studying human thought and behavior; and anthropology, examining cultural development and evolution.

Creative writing frequently employs semicolons to evoke specific emotions and pacing. It allows authors to join related thoughts without the full separation of a period, creating a sense of continuity and flow:

  • She watched the sun disappear below the horizon; the sky flushed with brilliant hues of red and orange.

In formal correspondence, the semicolon is used to ensure clarity and prevent ambiguity, particularly when discussing multiple topics or points:

  • Please submit your reports by Friday; additionally, confirm your attendance at the meeting.

As for various grammatical styles, semicolons play a crucial role in synoptic sentences, where they replace conjunctions or adverbs, such as “but” or “however”:

  • Some critics argue that the novel is an allegory; others claim it is a satire.

In conclusion, the semicolon is a valuable punctuation mark, offering a plethora of uses across different writing styles and grammatical applications. When used judiciously, it can enhance the clarity, flow, and complexity of one’s writing while maintaining brevity and readability.

Should You Capitalize the First Letter After a Semicolon?

You shouldn’t capitalize the first letter after a semicolon unless it is a proper noun. Treat the semicolon like a comma and follow normal grammatical rules after placing one.

Don’t capitalize words after a semicolon!

Though they have their similarities, a semicolon isn’t a full stop. Just like you don’t need a capital letter after a comma, you don’t need one after a semicolon. Of course, this only applies to ordinary words. If a word always starts with a capital letter, such as the name of a person or a city, it won’t change because of a semicolon.

For example:

  • I have been waiting for this day for over a year; Finally, it has arrived. (Incorrect)
  • I have been waiting for this day for over a year; finally, it has arrived. (Correct)

The Semicolon (;) Infographic

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Semicolon Quiz

Questions

Now that you know everything there is to know about semicolons, we thought we’d put you to the test. Below are some examples of semicolons being used in a sentence. Decide if they are correct or not and see if you can correct them yourself if you think they are wrong.

1) To make this cocktail, you will need these four things: gin; lemonade; rum; and ice.

2) Lily walked the long way home; so she could see the beach.

3) Tim wasn’t hungry; he’d eat tomorrow.

4) Sally asked me to grab a few things from work for her: her photograph of her family; her old laptop with her files on; and the box of papers on her desk.

5) I needed to remember three things from the store; sausages for breakfast tomorrow; eggs to go with them; and tomato soup for lunch.

Answers

1) Incorrect! The list is simple, so commas are all that is needed:

  • To make this cocktail, you will need these four things: gin, lemonade, rum, and ice.

2) Incorrect! The coordinating conjunction ‘so’ is used. You need to either use a comma, or remove the conjunction:

  • Lily walked the long way home, so she could see the beach.

OR

  • Lily walked the long way home; she could see the beach.

3) Correct! It joins two independent clauses that are related and equally important!

4) Correct! A colon is used where it is made clear that a list will follow, and we use a semicolon afterwards because each item on the list has additional information.

5) Incorrect!

OK, we were mean on this one. BUT, a colon should start the list because we emphasised that a list was going to follow in the first part of the sentence. Technically, it should look like this:

  • I needed to remember three things from the store: sausages for breakfast tomorrow; eggs to go with them; and tomato soup for lunch.

FAQs on Semicolon

What is a semicolon and when should it be used?

A semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark that functions as a connector between elements, such as independent clauses or items in a list. It is often used to create a sense of balance and cohesion in sentences. This punctuation mark can replace a coordinating conjunction, like “and” or “but,” while still maintaining the relationship between the clauses. For example:

  • She went to the store; he stayed at home.

What are some common mistakes when using a semicolon?

Semicolons are frequently misused, leading to confusion and errors in writing. A few common mistakes to avoid are:

  • Using a semicolon in place of a comma, as they are not interchangeable.
  • Using semicolons with dependent clauses or phrases, as these do not form complete thoughts.
  • Overusing semicolons in a sentence, which can lead to a choppy or disjointed rhythm.

How do semicolons differ from colons and commas?

Semicolons, colons, and commas serve different functions within a sentence:

  • Semicolons primarily connect independent clauses or separate items in a list that contain internal commas.
  • Commas are used to separate words, phrases, or clauses within a sentence or list.
  • Colons introduce an explanation, list, or quotation, usually following an independent clause.

How can semicolons improve writing clarity?

When used correctly, semicolons can enhance the clarity and flow of writing by:

  1. Avoiding run-on sentences or comma splices.
  2. Connecting related clauses to create cohesion.
  3. Separating items in a list with internal commas to avoid confusion.

In summary, understanding and properly utilizing semicolons can elevate a writer’s ability to craft well-structured and cohesive sentences.

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