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. After all, that sly emoticon winky eye can’t be all bad. 😉 First things first: 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 top tips for how to use a semicolon; we hope you’re taking notes.

1. Join Related Independent Clauses

The most common use of the semicolon is 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:

I ordered a cheeseburger for lunch; life’s too short for counting calories.
Mark Twain didn’t like semicolons; he said that all they do is show you’ve gone to college.

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 four 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.

Learning How to Use Semicolons Will Make You Smarter image

2. Kick Out a Conjunction

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.”

I saw a magnificent albatross, and it was eating a mouse.
I saw a magnificent albatross; it was eating a mouse.

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:

This is part of the same rule; the conjunction in question is “but” instead of “and.”

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. Spice Up 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.

The journey took them to San Francisco, California; Akron, Ohio; Columbia, Maryland; and Miami, Florida.
My plan included taking him to a nice—though not necessarily expensive—dinner; going to the park to look at the stars, which, by the way, are amazing this time of year; and serenading him with my accordion.

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. Set the Scene for Certain Adverbs

When you join two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb, the start of the second clause is a good spot for a semicolon. A conjunctive adverb is a word that links two separate thoughts or ideas, but it’s fancier than your basic conjunction. Some common ones include: moreover, however, indeed, otherwise, besides, accordingly, and therefore.

All my life I had dreamed of meeting Queen Elizabeth; however, it was not to be.
It began to rain on the morning of Joe and Tabitha’s wedding; indeed, it was the first of many things to go wrong that day.

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. Give a Wily Wink

Emoticons will never replace a solid knowledge of the English language. But they can sure spice it up from time to time. 😉 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.

Weekly Grammar Tips
Weekly Grammar Tips
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