Punctuation Punctuation Glossary 2019-03-04 00:00

Are You Using Semi-Colons Correctly?


If you’ve ever wondered when it’s appropriate to use a semi-colon, you’re not alone. It’s one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks around. Let’s break it down so you know exactly when and where to insert a semi-colon in your writing.

  1. What is the purpose of a semi-colon?
  2. Examples of semi-colon use
  3. Rules for using semi-colons
  4. Final thoughts

What is the purpose of a semi-colon?

Semi-colons are an in-between punctuation mark. Think of it as half-comma, half-period. It fits in between two independent clauses that need more than a comma, but less finality than a period.

Say, for example, you have two independent clauses closely related. They don’t need a full stop between them, but they don’t need a conjunction to separate them. You should use a semi-colon.

Also, some serial lists already using commas to separate individual items will need a semi-colon if there is another distinction to be made within the sentence.

Examples of semi-colon use

If you’re using a conjunction like and, but, or etc., always separate with a comma. But if you have two sentences that are related in idea and meaning, you don’t need a conjunction or a hard stop. For example:

  • She thought about her chances of getting caught; it was a risk she was willing to take.

In the above example, your subject’s consideration of her chances and her willingness to plow forward are closely related. It would sound stuffy and choppy to separate these clauses with a period. And you don’t need a comma and a conjunction because that diffuses the connection between the two thoughts. A semi-colon is exactly what you need.

You also use semi-colons with long lists of items that need commas to separate them, like:

  • She’d lived around the country. She spent two years in Milan, Michigan; four years in Columbus, Ohio; and ten years in Nashville, Tennessee.

Finally, use a semi-colon when using a conjunctive adverb to link two independent clauses like moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, however, finally, consequently, etc.

  • The city warned everyone not to leave their homes during the massive storm; however, Amy decided her children needed milk more than she needed to stay safely at home.

Rules for using semi-colons

You don’t capitalize the first word after a semi-colon unless it’s a proper noun or an acronym. Semi-colons aren’t interchangeable with commas and periods, so you don’t use a conjunction with a semi-colon. They stand on their own.

You also can’t connect two independent clauses with a comma; that’s called a comma splice, and it’s a no-no. So you either need a comma and a conjunction to separate two independent clauses, or you connect them with a semi-colon without the conjunction.

When in doubt, it’s best to separate two independent clauses with a period or a comma and a conjunction. Avoid using a semi-colon where you need a comma, like when you describe cause and effect:

  • Incorrect: Because rabbit cages are smelly; I don’t want a rabbit as a pet.
  • Correct: Because rabbit cages are smelly, I don’t want a rabbit as a pet.

Final thoughts

Of course, the fun way to use a semi-colon to get your point across is with a smiling winky face made with a parenthesis and a semi-colon ;). Happy writing!

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