How to use 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.
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 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.

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.’

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

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

Semicolons can be used to break up complicated lists, dividing the list into easy-to-understand sections

Common mistakes

Try not to overuse a semicolon. For example, don't use a semicolon instead of a comma to join a dependent clause:

  • ‘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.

Quiz

Find out how much you know about semicolons in this short quiz!

Where next?

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