There tends to be a lot of confusion surrounding the semicolon and how one should use this punctuation mark that’s not quite a comma and not quite a colon.
But the worst mistake a writer could make is inserting a semicolon without first understanding when and how to use it.
What Is a Semicolon?
The semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark that is used to indicate a pause, most often between two independent clauses in a single sentence.
Although not always necessary, semicolons can make your writing more clear and effective if you know how to use them properly.
How to Use a Semicolon: Examples
A semicolon can be used in a variety of cases. See the examples below to make sure you’re using it correctly.
To Link Two Independent Clauses
Semicolons are most commonly used to separate two independent clauses that are closely related to each other.
I have an early flight tomorrow; I can’t stay out late tonight.
Note that these two clauses could stand as sentences on their own if we put a period between them instead of a semicolon:
I have an early flight tomorrow. I can’t stay out late tonight.
Alternatively, they could also be connected by a comma and a conjunction:
I have an early flight tomorrow, so I can’t stay out late tonight.
While there are a number of ways to convey the same idea in this sentence, using a semicolon can add variety to your writing. It can also help you to break up run-ons or interrupt a series of too many short, choppy sentences.
To Join Complex Clauses With a Coordinating Conjunction
In the example above, you do not need a semicolon if you use a coordinating conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” or “so”). All you need is a comma in these cases.
However, if you have a more complex sentence with multiple clauses that contain their own internal punctuations, you can use a semicolon and a coordinating conjunction to make the sentence more clear.
If you want me to stay out late tonight, at least help me to pack my bag first; and if you can’t, we’ll just go to bed early.
Each half of the above sentence contains a conditional clause that must have a comma, so it’s acceptable to use a coordinating conjunction (in this case, “and”) after the semicolon.
Note that you could also rewrite this as two separate sentences if you wish. For example:
If you want me to stay out late tonight, at least help me to pack my bag first. If you can’t, we’ll just go to bed early.
To Separate Items in a List
If you have a list of items that contain commas themselves, separate the items with semicolons.
I have lived in Los Angeles, California; Miami, Florida; and Denver, Colorado.
As you can see, a comma is needed between each city and its respective state. Without the semicolons to separate each location, the sentence would be extremely confusing.
I have lived in Los Angeles, California, Miami, Florida, and Denver, Colorado.
With Conjunctive Adverbs and Transitional Phrases
When two main clauses are connected with conjunctive adverbs (words such as “therefore,” “however,” or “indeed”), a semicolon is needed (unless you choose to start a new sentence).
I have an early flight tomorrow; therefore, I can’t stay out late tonight.
Transitional phrases, on the other hand, include phrases like “for example,” “in addition,” or “as a result.”
I have an early flight tomorrow; as a result, I can’t stay out late tonight.
Semicolon vs Colon
Despite the similarities in their names, the colon and semicolon are actually used for quite different purposes.
Whereas the semicolon is used primarily to separate clauses and ideas, the colon is mostly used to introduce or define something.
You can check out our post about nine different ways to use a colon for a more in-depth explanation of proper colon usage.
Know How to Use Semicolons
Semicolons can add variety to your writing and bring added clarity to some of your sentences, but only if you know how to use them properly.
Study the examples above so you can write with confidence and clarity!
Do you have any tips for remembering punctuation rules? Feel free to share them in the comments below!