How to use semicolons

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What do you get if you cross a comma with a colon?

A semicolon!

The semicolon is amongst the youngest of the punctuation marks. It was introduced in Venice in 1494. In comparison to the full stop, which was invented in the 3rd Century BC, it is practically a baby.

Introduction to semicolons

  • A semicolon is a punctuation mark that looks like this ;

  • When used correctly the semicolon can make writing clearer

  • The semicolon can help you join closely connected ideas in a sentence

  • It can also break up a list that contains longer phrases

Video about how to use semicolons

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

Connecting 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 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.

  • 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.

Rewrite these sentences using a semicolon instead of a conjunction or full stop:

  1. Hayley loves sports. Her favourite is basketball.
  2. Imogen missed the bus so she had to walk to town.
  3. Rohan had been saving his pocket money. He was hoping to buy a new bike.
  4. It was a warm, sunny day and we spent the afternoon in the park.
  1. Hayley loves sports; her favourite is basketball.
  2. Imogen missed the bus; she had to walk to town.
  3. Rohan had been saving his pocket money; he was hoping to buy a new bike.
  4. It was a warm, sunny day; we spent the afternoon in the park.

Semicolons and conjunctive adverbs

A conjunctive adverb connects ideas in a sentence:

  • however
  • instead
  • therefore
  • meanwhile
  • consequently
  • accordingly
  • 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."

Breaking 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 go to the seaside, I make sure I have my sunglasses, sun cream , sandals and a beach towel.

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

When I pack for holiday, I make sure I have my passport, tickets and a book for the airport; sunglasses, suncream, sandals and a beach towel for the beach; and foreign currency.

The semicolons are added to signal to the reader which objects are grouped together and make the overall list clearer.

Common mistakes

Think of a semicolon as being like balancing scales. Both sides of the scale must be a or a full sentence on their own.

Don't use a semicolon instead of a comma to join a :

  • As the weather gets colder; I like to put more food out for the birds. - is incorrect.
  • As the weather gets colder, I like to put more food out for the birds. - is correct.

A comma is needed here, not a semicolon. The first part of the sentence is known as a ‘subordinate clause’ because it is dependent. It does not make sense on its own and needs to be closely linked to the main part of the sentence.

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