What Is A Semicolon And How To Use It?

It’s one of the hottest things grammar nerds argue about: just when are you supposed to use semicolons? We’ve definitely got a take on this topic—we do have a take on all the grammar rules after all. But what about you? Do you know exactly when to use a semicolon and when to rely on other punctuation marks?

What is a semicolon (;)?

Semicolons can join two or more independent sentences or divide items that are separated by commas in a list. A semicolon indicates a slight break in the flow of thought.

How to use a semicolon

To join two independent clauses

A semicolon links two or more independent clauses that are closely related. An independent clause is any group of words that contains both a subject and a verb and could stand alone as a complete sentence. For example: Chocolate ice cream is delicious; vanilla pudding tastes good, too. Notice that the two clauses don’t need a conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) because the semicolon takes its place.

The semicolon helps establish a strong relationship between the two sentences, and it also helps give the two food items equal importance in the sentence.

In place of a conjunction

You can also use a semicolon with conjunctions (such as nevertheless, thus, or besides) that combine two sentences. In the following example, note that the first word in the second sentence (however) isn’t capitalized: My little brother likes worms; however, I think they’re disgusting. Capitalization isn’t necessary in this instance because the two sentences form one complete thought.

In some cases, semicolons can take the place of information that’s been omitted. In this example, a semicolon joins a complete sentence and a dependent clause: I ate five hot dogs this year; last year, six. Alternatively, these sentences could be joined by a conjunction, in which case, a comma would be used in place of the semicolon: I ate five hot dogs this year, but last year, I ate six.

To separate items in a serial list

Semicolons also divide lists of items that already include commas. Here’s an example: My best friends are my sister, Mary; my next door neighbor, George; my tennis partner, Susie; and my dog, Spot. Without the semicolons, the sentence would be confusing: My best friends are my sister, Mary, my next door neighbor, George, my tennis partner, Susie, and my dog, Spot. (How many best friends are there?)

Lists containing the names of places frequently require semicolons, as in this example: On our vacation, we visited London, England; Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; and Rome, Italy. The semicolons help group together important information (in this case, cities and their countries), making the sentence easier to read and understand.

Semicolons are also used to separate items in a series. For example, Yesterday, I worked on my math homework; today, I memorized the spelling words; tomorrow, I plan to start writing my book report. Although each of these three ideas could be written as an independent sentence followed by a period, the semicolons indicate a progression of thought and action.

Write smarter with our thesaurus-powered Grammar Coach™! Get spelling help, synonyms suggestions, grammar check and more! Sign up now!

Do you capitalize after a semicolon?

As you’ve no doubt noticed in these examples, capitalization after a semicolon is not required and would be grammatically incorrect.

How does a semicolon differ from a colon and comma?

It’s often difficult to know whether to use a comma or a semicolon in a sentence. Allow the meaning of the sentence to help guide the decision.

The semicolon vs. comma

Semicolons indicate a less significant break in thought than a period but a more significant one than a comma. Often, reading the sentence aloud can help you decide which punctuation mark is more appropriate. In terms of lists, the comma is sufficient unless a complex list involves commas already, as explained above.

The semicolon vs. colon

Both a semicolon and colon link independent clauses together, so you may be confused about when to use which.

When an explanation takes the form of a second independent clause that follows a main independent clause, you can join the two clauses into a single sentence with a colon. Here is an example: Jenny had an idea: she would pick up a cake on her way to her friend’s house. Both the clause before the colon and the one after it are complete sentences. The clause after the colon further explains Jenny’s idea.

Unless the second independent clause explains the first, a semicolon is sufficient to join two closely related independent clauses. For example, Lincoln was first elected to the Presidency in 1860; Kennedy was first elected in 1960.

 

If you think the semicolon is challenging, take a look at these obscure punctuation marks!