Using semicolons in different situations

Home learning focus

Learn how to use a semicolon in different situations.

This lesson includes:

  • two videos to remind yourself of the main rules for using semicolons and how they are different to colons

  • three activities


A semicolon is a type of punctuation which helps to show relationships between phrases in a sentence.

Watch this short video to remind yourself of some of the different situations where you can use a semicolon and the rules you should follow.

Learn how to use a semicolon correctly to connect ideas or break up a list.

Using semicolons to connect ideas

The most common way to use a semicolon is to help join closely connected ideas in a sentence. These sections must be independent and complete sentences, but closely linked in some way:

‘Sandip spent three hours in the library; he couldn’t find the book he wanted.’

A semicolon is often used to replace a coordinating conjunction like and or but. The sentence about Sandip could have been written like this:

‘Sandip spent three hours in the library but he couldn’t find the book he wanted.’

A full stop could often be used instead of a semicolon, but the effect on the reader would change. As in this famous opening line from a Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities:

‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’
‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’

The statement has a different impact with a semicolon because the semicolon closely connects the ideas into one sentence to suggest that the time was good and bad simultaneously. In the first version it sounds more like a contradiction.

Using semicolons with conjunctive adverbs

A conjunctive adverb connects ideas in a sentence. Examples of conjunctive adverbs are the words however, instead, therefore, meanwhile, consequently, accordingly and also.

If a conjunctive adverb is used to link two sentences, a semicolon must be used before the conjunctive adverb:

‘Sandip spent three hours in the library; however he couldn’t find the book he wanted.’

A semicolon must be used before a conjunctive adverb if the conjunctive adverb is used to link together two sentences.

Using semicolons to break up a list

Semicolons can also be used when writing a list. In most lists, it’s enough to use commas to separate the items:

‘When I pack for school, I make sure I have my pens, pencils, lunch box, PE kit and bus money.’

However, if the list is more complicated semicolons may be needed to make the list clear for the reader:

‘When I pack for school, I make sure I have my calculator, compasses and ruler for maths and science lessons; drawing pencils, with coloured pastels, for art; shin pads, goalie gloves and boots for football; and my bus money.’

The semicolons are added to show the reader which objects are grouped together and make the list clearer. They can break up complicated lists, dividing the list into easy-to-understand sections.

Watch this video to see an explanation of semicolons and how they are different to colons.

Find out about colons and semicolons with Frank the farmer.


Activity 1

Have a go at this quick quiz to find out what you've learnt about semicolons.

Activity 2

Create a detailed poster explaining how to use a semicolon.

Start by deciding on the overall design - will your poster have a large image of a semicolon in the middle? Or a border made up of lots of little semicolons?

Divide the poster into sections, with each section briefly explaining the different functions of a semicolon.

Include example sentences in your poster, showing how semicolons are used in different ways, eg in a longer list.

You can use a computer or create the poster by hand on a sheet of paper.

Activity 3

Click on the image below and complete the semicolon challenges in this activity sheet from Twinkl. You will find the answers on the last page.

You can print this activity sheet or write your answers on a piece of paper.

Semicolon challenge worksheet

Where next?

In this lesson you have learnt about using semicolons in different situations.

There are other useful articles on Bitesize to help you with punctuation rules.

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