What Are Semicolons (;) And How Do You Use Them?Published February 18, 2022
- What Is A Semicolon?
- When To Use One
- How To Use One
- Write With Grammar Coach
The semicolon is a punctuation mark that is not used as often as a period or a comma, possibly because people are afraid of using it incorrectly. This is unfortunate; the semicolon can really spice up your writing if you know how to use it. The semicolon may be one of the trickier marks that we use, but its not as intimidating as most people think. If you take the time to learn a little bit about the semicolon, youll see that there is nothing to be afraid of.
What is a semicolon (;)?
A semicolon is a punctuation mark that represents a more significant pause than a comma but less significant than a period. A semicolon resembles a period placed over a comma (;). The two most common reasons to use a semicolon are to join two related independent sentences or to punctuate a list or series that also uses commas.
️Examples of a semicolon in a sentence
The following examples show how we use semicolons in sentences.
- We went to the zoo yesterday; it was fun to see all of the cool animals.
- Bananas and apples are both fruits; however, they dont look anything alike.
- Briannas book collection includes horror stories, which are her favorites; romance novels, which are her guilty pleasure; and history books, which she finds fascinating.
When do you use a semicolon?
As mentioned already, there are two common uses for semicolons.
Joining two independent clauses
The first and probably more confusing reason that we use a semicolon is to connect two independent clauses together. An independent clause has both a subject and a predicate and can stand by itself as a complete sentence. For example, Matt likes baseball is an independent clause, but because Matt likes baseball is not.
You can think of a semicolon as a punctuation mark that represents a pause between a comma and a period. It represents a stronger division than a comma but stops short of completely dividing two sentences like a period does. In general, we use a semicolon to indicate that two sentences are closely related to each other. For example, they could discuss the same topic or contrast two similar things:
- You can find lions in Africa; they live in groups called prides. (Both sentences are about the same lions.)
- Lions are group hunters; by contrast, tigers prefer to live alone. (The two sentences discuss different species of big cats.)
All of that being said, we can often express the same meaning using either a semicolon, a comma, or a period. For example,
- Lazlo likes cake. He likes pie, too.
- Lazlo likes cake, and he likes pie, too.
- Lazlo likes cake; he likes pie, too.
All of the above sentences have the exact same meaning. The main difference between them is the length of a pause and that the semicolon signals that the two sentences are closely related. However, these punctuation marks are not grammatically interchangeable; we will go over this shortly.
Semicolon vs. colon
The colon is another punctuation mark that can connect closely related independent sentences. In general, there is a slight difference in how we use these two punctuation marks. A semicolon is used to indicate that two sentences are closely related in general. A colon, on the other hand, is typically used to indicate that the second sentence explains, clarifies, or expands on the previous sentence. For example,
- Colon: Yuki is a great leader: He always makes swift, assertive decisions.
- Semicolon: Yuki is a great leader; the company has flourished under his watch.
In the first example, we use a colon to indicate that the second sentence gives an explanation as to why Yuki is a great leader. In the second example, we use a semicolon to indicate the second sentence is closely related to the first sentence. However, the sentence following the semicolon doesnt explain or expand on the sentence that came before it. You probably noticed that there was also a difference in capitalization. More on that in a bit.
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A list with commas
If a list or series has items that use commas, we often use semicolons to make a sentence less confusing. For example, look at this sentence that only uses commas:
- I have lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Charleston, South Carolina, and San Francisco, California.
A little confusing, right? We can make this sentence a lot more clear by using semicolons to replace the commas that separate the different items in the list:
- I have lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; and San Francisco, California.
While locations are a common reason to use semicolons in a list, we can also use them to clarify a sentence that uses several dependent clauses:
- The dessert has strawberries, which I love; peanuts, which I am allergic to; and something called quinoa, which I have never heard of.
Learn more about when and how to use the comma.
How to use a semicolon
There are a few grammatical rules to be aware of when using a semicolon.
Unlike a period, a semicolon is not followed by a capital letter unless the sentence begins with a proper noun or other word that is always capitalized:
Incorrect: My brothers favorite color is blue; Mine is green.
Correct: My brothers favorite color is blue; mine is green.
Correct: Queen is my favorite band; Freddie Mercury was an amazing singer.
Grammatically, it is considered improper to follow a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). The second independent sentence can simply stand by itself.
Incorrect: Bats are nocturnal; and owls are also nocturnal.
Correct: Bats are nocturnal; owls are also nocturnal.
A semicolon can be followed by adverbs, such as however, therefore, and nevertheless, or phrases such as on the other hand, as a result, or in other words that are used to introduce a sentence.
Correct: We liked the new design; however, our boss was unsatisfied with it.
Quiz yourself on the difference between colons and semicolons.
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