What is a semicolon?
What is correct semicolon use? The most common semicolon use is joining two independent clauses without using a coordinating conjunction like and. Semicolons can also replace commas when listing items that already use commas, such as listing cities and states.
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 capitalized word only if the word is a proper noun or an acronym.
We can go to the museum to do some research; Mondays are pretty quiet there.
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 Use semicolons to 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:
I ordered a cheeseburger for lunch; life’s too short for counting calories.
Martha has gone to the library; her sister has gone to play soccer.
The examples above are each made up of two complete, grammatically correct sentences glued together.
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 Skip the coordinating conjunction when you use a semicolon between two independent clauses
A semicolon isn’t the only thing that can link two independent clauses. Coordinating conjunctions (that’s your ands, buts, and ors) can do that too. But you shouldn’t use a semicolon and a conjunction. That means that when you use a semicolon, you use it instead of the ands, buts, and ors; you don’t need both.
Here’s a hint: You know how you can use a comma and an and to link two related ideas? Think of the period that forms the top part of the semicolon as a replacement for 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.
A semicolon can replace a period or a comma and a coordinating conjunction to demonstrate contrast between independent clauses instead of agreement. 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 coordinating conjunction between the 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.
I need the weather statistics for the following cities: London, England; London, Ontario; Paris, France; Paris, Ontario; and Perth, Scotland; Perth, Ontario.
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 showing the divisions between items in long, punctuation-loving lists. Yup, that was one there.
4 Use semicolons with conjunctive adverbs
When you have a conjunctive adverb linking two independent clauses, you should use a semicolon between the clauses. Common conjunctive adverbs include words like moreover, nevertheless, however, otherwise, therefore, then, finally, likewise, consequently, and many others.
I needed to go for a walk and get some fresh air; also, I needed to buy milk.
Reports of the damage caused by the hurricane were greatly exaggerated; indeed, the storm was not a hurricane at all.
The students had been advised against walking alone at night; however, Cathy decided walking wasn’t dangerous if it was early in the evening.
I’m not all that fond of the colors of tiger lilies; moreover, they don’t smell very good.
These words sometimes show up in other parts of a sentence; therefore, the semicolon rule applies only if it helps the conjunctive adverb join two independent clauses. (See what we did there?)
This conjunctive adverb rule is similar to the coordinating conjunction rule. In both cases, check whether 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.