Semicolon (;) When to Use a Semicolon in English

What is a semicolon? What is (;) called? Learn how and when to use a semicolon in English with useful punctuation rules and example sentences.

Semicolon (;)

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 with the difference between a colon and a semicolon

When To Use a Semicolon?

1) When you want to make the gap between two sentences smaller

When two sentences are linked very closely, putting a full stop between them might be too much. On the other hand, they are two different sentences, so a simple comma won’t do, either. In this case, a semicolon comes to the rescue.

For example:

  • Give me a call after lunch; we will discuss all the details then.
  • Let’s go to the library to study; it’s the only place where I can fully concentrate.

2) When you introduce a new complete sentence with words such as however, nevertheless, therefore, for example, etc.

Once again, the two sentences are too connected to let a full stop separate them but a comma doesn’t seem enough. Here, you can use a semicolon. Remember to put a comma after the word or phrase that introduces your new sentence.

For example:

  • Jeremy has never been a problematic child; however, his mother kept acting surprised when he behaved well.
  • Lucy doesn’t pay enough attention to her university studies; for example, instead of preparing for her big exam, she usually goes to a club.

3) When you separate units in a list, with units already containing commas

Sometimes you might have a list where one or more units have commas. Adding even more commas will make things very complicated, and the sentence might stop making sense for the reader. So, you will need to separate units by semicolons.

For example:

  • Martha could go on for hours about her trips to Rome, Italy; Madrid, Spain; Ottawa, Canada; and Athens, Greece.

This sentence would be very confusing with only commas: Martha could go on for hours about her trips to Rome, Italy, Madrid, Spain, Ottawa, Canada, and Athens, Greece.

4) When you use a connector, such as but, and, or, between two independent clauses

In many cases, when you have independent clauses, a simple comma is enough. Still, if you already have commas in the first clause, you might want to separate it from the second clause by a semicolon.

For example:

  • Tony has loved everything about Italy, from food to architecture, since he was a small child; but he is yet to visit Rome.

5) When you have two sentences connected by a connector and a comma

An alternative to a comma and a connector, such as and, but, or, nor, etc, is using the punctuation mark (;). It will make your writing more interesting and diverse. Just remember that you are replacing both the comma and the connector with a semicolon, not just the comma.

For example:

  • Tom likes to go out with his friends and drink all night long, and Maria prefers to stay at home with a good book and quiet music.

can be turned into:

  • Tom likes to go out with his friends and drink all night long; Maria prefers to stay at home with a good book and quiet music.

What Not To Do With a Semicolon?

1) Don’t use it 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)

2) 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)

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? 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 mark (;), you don’t have to put it at all.

For 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.

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Semicolon (;) When to Use a Semicolon in English

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