When to Use a Semicolon?

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A lot of people are afraid of using a semicolon (;) as they don’t know how to use it properly. It’s neither a comma (,) nor a full stop (.). Some people use it in place of a colon (:), but it works quite differently. A semicolon links independent clauses in a sentence and introduces the reason for the preceding statement while colon is used for a stronger and more direct relationship.

In this article, we’ll explore what exactly a semicolon is and when to use it.

What is a semicolon?

A semicolon is a punctuation mark used to join two independent clauses that are closely related in thought. When you use a semicolon to connect two or more parts of a sentence that are closely related, you give equal rank or position to all of them. 

A semicolon connects closely linked ideas and indicates a pause between two main clauses. You should use it when you need a stronger punctuation mark than a comma to link two or more independent clauses, but less strong than a full stop or period.

When to Use a Semicolon?

“When to use a semicolon” is one of the most common questions about this punctuation mark because it is confusing to use. In the next section, we’ll explore several ways that you can use semicolons along with examples.

To Connect Relatable Yet Independent Clauses

As we mentioned above, a semicolon is used to connect two correlated independent clauses. By independent clauses, we mean the group of words (sentence) that comes before and after the semicolon. Remember, both sentences should form a complete sentence and share a rational association. Let’s see some examples below. 

Examples

  • Some writers use a word processor; others use a pen or pencil.
  • I am going bald; my hair is getting thinner and thinner.
  • This car needs new brakes; otherwise, you will not be able to stop in time.
  • Joseph drives a Jaguar; Roman drives a Porsche.
  • We call it loo; they call it the bathroom.
  • I have taken the main course; now I have to taste dessert.
  • We know you don’t like broccoli; nevertheless, it’s good for your health.

You can see all the sentences above are made up of two complete sentences and have an association with each other. If you use a comma instead of a semicolon in these sentences, it will result in a comma splice.

To Separate List Items

A semicolon is also used to divide the list items if the items are long or include internal punctuation. It enables readers to determine the divisions between the items. Let’s have a look at some examples of it.

Examples

  • The restaurant gives you the option to order a sandwich with cheese, egg, and bacon; tomato, avocado, and lettuce; or ham, tomato, and cheese.
  • There are two ways you can write this letter: with a pencil or pen; or by computer and printer. 
  • I have a brother in Palm Springs, Florida; another brother in Oakland, California.
  • To get a job, I traveled to London, England; Tokyo, Japan; and Seattle, Washington.

In the above sentences, we have used semicolons to show which items or things are grouped together. 


Use of Semicolon with Conjunctive Adverbs

For those who don’t know, conjunctive adverbs unite two independent sentences. They demonstrate a relationship between the two parts of a sentence and offer a seamless transition from one idea to another. Some famous examples of conjunctive adverbs include:

  • Consequently
  • However
  • Indeed
  • Besides
  • Likewise
  • Instead
  • Moreover

Whenever we have a conjunctive adverb connecting two independent sentences, we should use a semicolon.

Examples

  • I am diet-conscious; however, I love eating pizza.
  • I was jobless; consequently, I could not pay my bill.
  • It rained heavily; however, we managed to go on a picnic.
  • I am going to Canada; moreover, I intend to stay there for a few days.
  • It was already dark; therefore, they decided to pitch a tent there.
  • You must study hard; otherwise, you might get a bad grade.
  • I wanted to be home early; therefore, I left work at 4 p.m.
  • I practiced the guitar; meanwhile, she practiced singing.
  • The doctor gave me medicine; however, I still feel fever occasionally.

Note: In some cases, conjunctive adverbs appear in other parts of a sentence. You need to apply the semicolon rule only when it helps the conjunctive adverb connect two separate clauses. So, you need to check with it before using a semicolon.

 

Delete The Conjunction When Using a Semicolon

In the above example, we see how semicolons are used with conjunctive adverbs. However, it’s important to understand that you shouldn’t use a semicolon with coordinating conjunction such as but, or, yet, and, and more. 

You can either use a semicolon or coordinating conjunctive, but both together are not allowed. See the example.

Incorrect: I went to the city park; and my friend was there with his girlfriend.

Correct: I went to the city park; my friend was there with his girlfriend.

Correct: I went to the city park, and my friend was there with his girlfriend.

Note: We can use a semicolon to separate two independent sentences that are connected by a coordinating conjunction if those sentences are very long or punctuated with commas. See the following example:

I like cheeses of all types, including both firm cheddars and soft Mozzarella; but some cheese lovers stick to a single variety only.

 

When Not to Use Semicolon in a Sentence

Now we know when to use a semicolon. Let’s take a quick look at when not to use it.

To Introduce a List

A lot of writers make this mistake; they use a semicolon to introduce a list.

Incorrect: My garden contains the following flowers; roses, sunflowers, tulips, and marigolds.

Correct: My garden contains the following flowers: roses, sunflowers, tulips, and marigolds

 

To Connect Incomplete Sentences

 

Incorrect: I like the USA; because of the food and friendly people.

Correct: I like the USA; the food is delicious, and people are friendly.

 

Between a Dependent Clause and The Rest of The Sentence

 

Incorrect: No one applied for the post; even though it was advertised excessively. 

Correct: No one applied for the post, even though it was advertised excessively. 

 

There are other nuanced rules for using semicolons that we will not describe here. We hope this post helps you understand how and when to use a semicolon.  


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