Punctuation Marks: How to Use a Semicolon

punctuation marks semicolonLots of people aren’t quite sure how to use a semicolon.

The semicolon might be the most misunderstood punctuation mark in the English language. This dot-comma combination is often used where a period, colon, or even a plain old comma belongs.

Underused and often abused, the semicolon is useful in a number of writing situations. Although proper semicolon use requires a little finesse, this particular punctuation mark is surprisingly easy to understand.

Here’s the lowdown on semicolon use:

    • The semicolon establishes a close connection between two sentences or independent clauses.
    • A semicolon can replace conjunctions and or but.
    • Semicolons indicate a stronger separation than a comma but weaker than a period.

  • A semicolon is often used in lists to separate items when some of the items in listed subsets require commas.
  • The semicolon is always followed by a lower case letter with proper nouns being the only exception (proper nouns are always capitalized).
  • Semicolon use can be applied to separate two clauses or sentences that are saying the same thing in different ways.
  • As with other punctuation marks that denote the end of a clause or sentence, there is no space between the semicolon and the word preceding it; there should be a single space after the semicolon.

Want real examples that show how to use a semicolon? You got ‘em!

  • I watched the Grammy Awards last night; I was pleased that Amy Winehouse won and thought it was a great show this year.
  • I love music; however, I haven’t played my own guitar in several years.
  • I have lived in several different cities: San Francisco, California; Haiku, Hawaii; and Santa Barbara, California.
  • When I was in fourth grade, I won the spelling bee for my entire school and went to the district championships. I practiced every night, memorized all the words on the list, and felt confident that I had a shot at winning; I got nervous on stage and misspelled one of the words even though I knew the proper spelling.
  • I’m fascinated by names and their meanings; Melissa means honey bee.
  • There’s nothing like the gentle drum of water hitting against the window pane; I love the rain.
  • This is not only a grammar post, it’s also a tag from Rudy Amid in which I’m asked to write seven weird facts about myself; the seventh is that I’m using my blog to multitask and be a good sport about memes.

In many cases, semicolon use is appropriate or grammatically correct, but when a period will do the trick, go with two separate sentences. In other words, if you can choose between separating clauses by a semicolon or writing two separate sentences (using a period), write two separate sentences. This makes text easier to read.

How often do you use semicolons? Ever? Do you think it’s best that this punctuation mark is used sparingly, or should we all aim for increased semicolon use — start a new fad, maybe? Share your thoughts on how to use a semicolon in the comments.

Oh, and I tag anyone who feels like sharing seven weird facts about themselves. Post them on your blog, and then come back and leave a comment here! And don’t forget to keep practicing proper semicolon use.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

55 Responses to “Punctuation Marks: How to Use a Semicolon”

  1. Sharp Words says:

    I’m a huge fan of semi-colons; I use them in the technical writing that pays my bills and the fiction writing that keeps me happy. Oh, and clearly, I use them in blog comments too!
    I don’t recall when I learnt to use semi-colons, though I remember reading about them in various style manuals and thinking ‘Hmm, so I do do it right then’.
    There’s a time and a place for their usage though, and I have a feeling that sometimes I use them a bit too much; for example, between sentences where a period would probably be more appropriate.

    • Chris says:

      “…reading about them in various style manuals and thinking, “Hmm, so I do…”.
      (You need a comma after “thinking”, I think.)

      • Hm, perhaps I do need a comma there. If it were dialogue, then a comma would be mandatory. Actually, since you pointed it out, I am wondering why my thought is in quotation marks since my normal practice is to put thoughts in italics. Then again, this is an older article. Thanks!

  2. Rudy says:

    Melissa, that’s a clever post to include the meme. I wouldn’t have figured it out because your 7 things were not weird at all!

    Question about your semi-colon example #4:

    I practiced every night, memorized all the words on the list, and felt confident that I had a shot at winning; but I got nervous on stage and misspelled one of the words even though I knew how to spell it.

    I thought you said it replaces and/but? I wasn’t sure if the “but” after the semi-colon was necessary in this case?

  3. Michele says:

    Melissa,

    I’d have never known this was a meme unless you told us! I was so engaged in reading about the semicolon and I just assumed you were using examples off the top of your head! You are so sly. :-)

    Fantabulous post!

  4. I’m curious why everyone is spelling semicolon with a dash (semi-colon). Hmm…

    @Sharp Words, I am fond of semicolons too, but I tend to go with a period if I can because I think that’s more natural for readers.

    @Rudy, Thanks :) I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do the meme because I try to keep this blog focused on writing, and not talk about myself. You raise a good question about my example. I think for that sentence, the “but” is required. Technically, you can’t start a new sentence with a conjunction (though most writers do it all the time), so a comma could work instead. However, I think that would be confusing after the list items. I believe since the semicolon can replace a period or a comma, my example is alright. This is where semicolons get complicated…

    @Michele, Yeah I squeezed it in there ;) heheh… Thanks!

  5. Kurt Vonnegut says:

    “First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

    • Moshfists says:

      Actually Kurt, semicolons have a purpose, but I do believe that they are misused and misunderstood. When they are used, I don’t think it is to necessarily show that the writer has been to college, but I believe it is to show that he or she is attempting to communicate something of great importance that a simple comma or period cannot convey. Of course, you will notice that I have used no semicolons in my statement. That is because I have never attended college, so you may be right.

    • Jeffrey says:

      Hello Kurt,

      Your comment is very good. I had a good chuckle. No wonder you are a famous writer.

      Regards,

      JC

      P.S. I will think about that comment everytime (now) I use the puncuation mark–hmmm–on second thought, maybe I will not use it at all!

  6. Gleno says:

    A great site. Your use of many examples is a great means to implant correct semicolon usage in the long term memory of your readers.

    Thank you for contributing to web in this way, and for instilling good writing skills within people in our society.

  7. maria says:

    thanks a lot!
    ps- haiku, hawaii? where is this? i lived in kailua for 16 years…. are you reffering to the haiku gardens in kaneohe?

  8. We should use semicolons more simply because, being on the home row, they are easy to type.

  9. I’d like to say that I’m honored to have the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut commenting on my blog. I sure feel special.

    @Geno, Thank you, it’s been my pleasure. Let’s hope society’s writing skills continue to improve.

    @Maria, It’s on Maui, not far from Paia. I have no idea where Kailua is, or the haiku gardens for that matter. I went to Ouahu for ten days when I graduated high school, then lived on Maui for a few months some years later. Loved it, but I got island fever and had to return to the mainland.

    @Simon, Good point.

  10. Jesse R says:

    Quick Question.

    Is the below sentence using the semicolon correctly?

    If there is a casue; there is a reaction.

    Thanks for your help!
    Jesse R.

  11. Jesse,

    I don’t think so. What I do know is that the sentence is spelling “cause” incorrectly. Also, I think the saying goes For every action there’s a reaction.

    A comma or semicolon is not necessary because the two halves on either side of the semicolon in your example don’t stand alone, and therefore are not independent clauses. Plus, as a rule of thumb, writing should not insert punctuation unless it enhances or clarifies meaning. In this case, it does neither.

    Thanks Jesse.

  12. Jesse R says:

    That is embarrassing. I just recall from a course (technical communications) that using a semicolon after an “if” statement is okay. I won’t quit my day job. Thanks for you help Melissa.

  13. Jesse, Nothing to be embarrassed about! There are some situations where it’s okay to use a semicolon but not necessary and then it’s really up to the writer to make a judgment call. That’s just one of the many reasons why writing can be so tricky.

  14. Peter Knight says:

    Can be used to separate two clauses or sentences that are saying the same thing in different ways.

    When two sentences are separate; sentences that are related.

    Peter Knights last blog post..The “33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make” series – together

  15. @Peter, Yeppers. I would add that even though semicolons come in handy when used correctly, sometimes it’s better to just start a new sentence. In my work, I’ve bumped across some written pieces in which the writer puts in a lot of semicolons and if overused, they actually hinder the flow of reading. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  16. Eugene Sung says:

    I would have to argue that the comma (as opposed to the semicolon) is probably the most misused punctuation mark in English. As far as I know, semicolons are merely used to connect two independent clauses. Commas are used for a wide variety of purposes. I don’t know… I just seem to see so many misplaced commas, but I rarely see semicolons being used at all.

  17. @Eugene, In most cases where a semicolon would be appropriate, I’ll go with two full separate sentences; i.e. forgo the semicolon and use a period instead. Yes, the comma is grossly misused all over the place. Don’t get me started on serial commas…

  18. Peter Knight says:

    As you say, Melissa “In most cases …”. But sometimes something is lost when a semicolon is replaced by a period – independent clauses, but one reinforcing the other, say:

    McCain is involved in a scandal. Obama is delighted

    and

    McCain is involved in a scandal; Obama is delighted

    Forgive the inappropriate example, I’m just a bit lazy right now.

    Peter

    PS Congratulations on this post: It keeps on bringing us back!

    Peter Knights last blog post..The “33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make” series – together

  19. Catherine says:

    I am learning English together with my children. We are trying to figure out how to use semicolon in proper sentences, when to use and when we should not.

    If anyone can share with us, thank you so much !

  20. Bill Pearce says:

    @peter

    Personally, I would have used a semicolon between “forgive the inappropriate example” and “I’m just a bit lazy right now.”

    Incidentally, it seems more appropriate.

  21. travis says:

    Melissa,

    I just clicked on the about page of your site because I found the site so helpful. You are really cute :o) I just thought I would comment about your looks for a sec. lol Jk. Keep up the great work here…very helpful.

  22. Cat says:

    If you are writing an article on proper semicolon use, you should use it properly in the article.

    Your article includes the following improperly punctuated sentence:

    In many cases, semicolon use is appropriate or grammatically correct, however, when a period will do the trick, go with two separate sentences. In other words, if you can choose between separating clauses by a semicolon or writing two separate sentences (using a period), write two separate sentences. This makes text easier to read.
    __________________________
    You should have used a semicolon before the word “however.”

    • Cat, I’m going to agree and disagree with you. A semicolon would be more appropriate than a comma. Another option would be to terminate the sentence after “correct” and start a new sentence at “however.” My preference is to change “however” to “but,” which is exactly what I’m going to do. Thanks for sharing your feedback.

  23. Dan says:

    I’m sorry for trolling but you’re doing (some of) it wrong.
    Example 1 is okay.
    Example 2 is not. When you use however (a conjunction like and/but/or) it makes the semicolon unnecessary.
    Example 3 is good, too.
    Example 4 is not. It would be better to replace the semicolon w/ a period. The two clauses are related enough for the same paragraph, but not the same sentence.
    Example 5 is okay but there are more elegant ways to write that sentence.
    Example 6 I like. But it’s instructive to remember that a long dash would be just as effective.

    I think the author knew she was stretching w/ some of these so I intend no malice. (I do recognize I sound like an asshole and, yes, I’m going through a parentheses phase) Semicolons are tricky. They are either over-used or under-used but once you get the trick of them they’re an invaluable addition to one’s writing toolbox.

    The most effective way to learn to use the semicolon is to read. Anything. Everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s The Economist or Twilight, just read.

    • Dan says:

      my bad, really old (in internet terms) article

    • Instead of apologizing for trolling, why not simply restrain yourself from it? And if you’re going to attempt to argue the information presented, I suggest you provide references or cite your credentials. These examples are based on The Chicago Manual of Style, which is an authoritative text on style and grammar. Semicolons are not that tricky, and the technical rules are not that clear, which means there is some wiggle room for writers to determine usage based on style. I suggest you take some time to reconsider your authority on this matter. While I agree with you that a writer can absorb a lot of grammar by simply reading, a truly professional writer will balance that with valid reference material.

  24. Kiran says:

    im soooo stuck on using them i just done get it
    HELPPPP

  25. cmdweb says:

    I’ve stopped using them for anything that I submit to an editor. I’ve found that few people really understand their use and most will just request that you remove them and reword. It’s a shame, because I think they can be really useful.

    • I agree. But I also can see where some people find semicolons unnecessary. Sure, they’re useful, but do we really need them? Eh, maybe. Maybe not. I bet we could live without them.

  26. Lavette Sharelle says:

    I adore using semicolons, however, I happen to misuse them an awful lot. I’m still confused about putting them to replace a ‘but’ or ‘and,’ because some people still put a ‘but’ or ‘and’ after the semicolon. Also, I don’t understand the part where they’re said to be used for two different sentences that say the same thing in different ways, because I don’t feel like any of Melissa’s examples are saying the same thing in different ways. Lastly, does anyone have an example of when it’ll be best to use a period instead of a semicolon? I’m having a hard time understanding that, since I’m pratically addicted to semicolons.

    • The problem may be that you’re addicted to semicolons. My suggestion is to try to avoid using them rather than trying to use them so frequently. Generally speaking, semicolons are not reader friendly. These and other uncommon punctuation marks jar the reader, especially when they’re overused. Here’s a good rule of thumb: whenever you can use a period a period, use a period. Reserve all other punctuation marks for only those time when they are absolutely necessary. Let the words and language do the work, not the punctuation.

      • Lavette Sharelle says:

        Ok. Thankyou! I will use them when neccessary, and avoid them when they’re not absolutely neccessary.

  27. Christine says:

    =This is not only a grammar post, it’s also a tag from by Rudy Amid in which I’m asked to write seven weird facts about myself; the seventh is that I’m using my blog to multitask and be a good sport about memes.

    Shouldn’t this be::

    This is not only a grammar post. It’s also a tag from by … [etc]

    or:::

    This is not only a grammar post, but also a tag from by … [etc]

    Please confirm.

    • My original sentence as well as your first one look good to me. In grammar, the rules are not always hard and fast. Usually, we get to choose how to structure a sentence as there is no specific rule. I prefer the comma in this construction because the two clauses are dependent on one another. I think your first sample sentence would be a valid alternative. I am not sure about the grammar, but I don’t like the construct in your second example because “but” and “also” right next to each other rub me the wrong way.

      I think this is similar to an if/then statement, which is always linked by a comma: If you write, then you should edit. You wouldn’t write the two clauses in that sentence as separate sentences: If you write. Then you should edit.

      The two clauses are dependent on each other and therefore must be joined by a comma.

      Most times, it’s not a matter of grammar at all but a matter of choice.

      • Christine says:

        Thanks for the reply back. I haven’t used semi-colons often and my mother pulled this out, but also decided that the sentence I had put as an example was ‘incorrect’ in ways. We were discussing this for a while back, so I wanted to get your input on it. :)

  28. Joey Ravine says:

    Semicolons are cool, but let’s not pound our caulks over them.

  29. Toby Cummings says:

    I realize that my time is finished; there is nothing left for me here.

    Is this (the above example) the correct usage of a semicolon?

    Thank you for you time.

    • I think the semicolon works here although you could also write two separate sentences. A bigger issue with this sentence, which I would suggest changing, would be to eliminate the phrase “I realize that.” Notice how much more concise it is:
      My time is finished; there is nothing left for me here.

  30. Shon says:

    Hey guys, just a question:
    can you use the word “that” after a semicolon?
    One of my friends was editing my essay and he thought that should be thought about. I couldn’t find anything that said not to use “that” after a semicolon, but I just need a review.

    • I don’t think there is any word you cannot use after a semicolon but whether you can place a word after a semicolon depends on context. In other words, I’d need to see the example to give you an exact answer.

  31. Kim says:

    I know this is a crazy question, but we’ve got quite a debate going on.

    The semicolon in the sentence below… What it is referring to? Is it referring to the entire list of items (Friday folders, backpacks, communicaiton with teachers, and children’s extra curricular activities. Or does it strictly mean every extra curricular activity.

    This includes checking the children’s Friday folders and backpacks, maintaining communication with the children’s teachers, and being involved in the children’s extracurricular activities; all of them.

    • Hm. The problem I see with your sample sentence is that the best construct would be to completely rewrite it to remove that dangling phrase from the end:

      This includes all of the following: checking the children’s Friday folders and backpacks, maintaining communication with the children’s teachers, and being involved in the children’s extracurricular activities.

      -or-

      This includes checking the children’s Friday folders and backpacks, maintaining communication with the children’s teachers, and being involved in all of the children’s extracurricular activities.

  32. Paula says:

    I’ve enjoyed your article and the comment discussion. It’s interesting that the comments haven’t become very hateful. Do you think people who enjoy grammar are more civil or did you have to remove all the objectionable comments?

    I do have a semicolon question. I an writing an advertisement for a sponsor. I have an extensive list of services the company will perform which could all be grouped under a heading of “Learn how to”. I want to write as concisely as possible to fit all the information in a limited space. Can I use a semicolon to separate items in a list which are long, instead of using a bulleted list? For example, could I write, “Learn how to pick a college which will give you the best financial aid package; send your child to an expensive private university for less money than a state university;” etc?

    Whether you answer or not, thanks for leaving this information online. It was very helpful!