How To Use the Semicolon

Whether you're a student or a professional, proper English punctuation is critical when submitting projects and correspondence. Follow this guide on how to use the semicolon.

Step 1

Use a semicolon to separate related main clauses that aren't joined by and, but, for, nor, so, or yet. The most common place to use a semicolon in the English language is between two related main clauses. These two clauses could stand alone and end with periods, but the semicolon shows the strong relationship between the two clauses. These two clauses can be closely connected, or they can be in contrast to each other. Either way, the semicolon acts as a link between the two ideas. Here are a few examples:

                I hate pepperoni on my pizza; I prefer ham instead.

                "I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean".  (G.K. Chesterton).

As you can see, both of these sentences contain two related main clauses. Although they could have been written as two separate sentences, the semicolon joined the two clauses to make the sentence more striking and the link between the two clauses more obvious.

Step 2

Use a semicolon to separate two main clauses that use a conjunctive adverb or a transitional expression. Another way to use the semicolon effectively is to put it between two main clauses that are separated with a conjunctive adverb (like however and therefore) or a transitional phrase or expression (like in fact and for example). In each case, the semicolon would come at the end of the first main clause, before the conjunctive adverb or transitional expression. Here are some examples of proper semicolon use following these rules:

                I don't enjoy playing golf; in fact, I just gave away my clubs.

                She gave me an A on my essay; however, I still think I deserved an A+.

You will find that conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions can be relocated within the second main clause and still make sense. You'll see an example of this in the following sentence.

"Science in the modern world has many uses; its chief use, however is to provide long words to cover the errors of the rich." (G.K. Chesterton).

Step 3

Use a semicolon in a list when the items contain punctuation marks. This sounds like a tricky one to understand, but it really isn't. You must also use a semicolon to divide a longer, more detailed list where the items contain commas or other punctuation marks. In normal, simple lists where single words are only separated by commas, semicolons need not be used. But when the series is more complicated, the semicolon helps to break up the items in a list and make the sentence easier to understand. Read this example:

I have been to the IHOP in Houston, Texas; Miami, Florida; San Diego, California; and Detroit, Michigan.  

You'll notice that by using a semicolon in this sentence, the reader can more easily differentiate between the items in the list or the series. Otherwise, the sentence would be fraught with commas that would leave even the most seasoned English speaker puzzled.

Semicolons are not as popular in English writing and speech these days, but those who continue to use them appreciate the value of a properly-placed semicolon.


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