What is a semicolon?
Semicolons (;) are as basic as a period stacked on top of a comma. Does that mean you can use it like either one? Don’t get your hopes up. But don’t let this punctuation mark get you down, either.
How to use a semicolon correctly
Do you use a capital letter after a semicolon? The general answer is no. A semicolon should be followed by a capital letter only if the word is a proper noun or an acronym.
Remember, semicolons are not interchangeable with commas or periods. Instead, they’re somewhere in between: stronger than a comma but not quite as divisive as a period. Sounds pretty cunning to us.
Here are the rules for using semicolons correctly; we hope you’re taking notes.
1 Semicolons connect related independent clauses
You can use a semicolon to join two closely related independent clauses. Let’s put that another way. The group of words that comes before the semicolon should form a complete sentence, the group of words that comes after the semicolon should form a complete sentence, and the two sentences should share a close, logical connection:
Notice that the letter following the semicolon is not capitalized. The examples above are both made up of two complete, grammatically correct sentences glued together. Yes, that means there are six total sentences up there—and thanks to the semicolon, only two capital letters.
That’s exactly why you can’t substitute a comma for a semicolon. Using a comma instead of a semicolon in the sentences above would result in a comma splice. And there’s nothing as painful as a comma splice.
2 Delete the conjunction when you use a semicolon between two independent clauses
A semicolon isn’t the only thing that can link two independent clauses. Conjunctions (that’s your ands, buts, and ors) can do that too. But you shouldn’t use a semicolon and a conjunction. That means when you use a semicolon, you use it instead of the ands, buts, and ors; you don’t need both.
Here’s a hint: if you used a comma and an “and” to link two related ideas, think of the period (you know, the top part of the semicolon) as a replacement “and.”
You need a comma plus something to avoid a comma splice. That something can either be the right conjunction or the period that turns a comma into a semicolon.
If semicolons can link independent clauses that would otherwise have a period or a conjunction between them, that means they can demonstrate contrast, too. This is part of the same rule, but the conjunction in question is “but” instead of “and.” In other words:
To summarize, a semicolon links up two related ideas by narrowing the gap between the ideas of two separate sentences or by replacing a conjunction between two related ideas. That goes for showing contrast, too: just because two ideas are opposed or contradictory, that doesn’t mean they aren’t related closely enough to earn themselves a semicolon.
3 Use semicolons in a serial list
You can use semicolons to divide the items of a list if the items are long or contain internal punctuation. In these cases, the semicolon helps readers keep track of the divisions between the items.
Let’s recap: so far we’ve got semicolons for linking two independent clauses; replacing a conjunction (whether showing similarity, like “and,” or opposition, like “but”); and long, comma-loving lists. Yup, that was one now.
4 Use semicolons with conjunctive adverbs
When you have a conjunctive adverb linking two independent clauses, you should use a semicolon. Some common conjunctive adverbs include moreover, nevertheless, however, otherwise, therefore, then, finally, likewise, and consequently.
These words sometimes show up in other parts of a sentence; therefore, the semicolon rule only applies if it helps the conjunctive adverb join two independent clauses. (See what we did there?)
This conjunctive adverb rule is similar to the conjunction rule. In both cases, check that the two ideas are independent clauses that could stand on their own as sentences. If so, then you’re grammatically good to go as far as the semicolon is concerned.
5 Use a semicolon to give a wink
The semicolon is a good punctuation mark to have in your back pocket. Or on top of your parenthetical smile. So whether you’re using it to whip up a good complex sentence or to give someone a wink, now you know how to do it right.