How do you use a semicolon?

It’s one punctuation mark no one really seems too sure about: the semicolon. In fact, many writers sheepishly avoid using it, making this face pretty appropriate ^^; There’s no need to be hesitant about semicolons, though! They’re a useful tool to add variety to your writing, and you can put them to work for you just as soon as you read this article to straighten out the rules. When you’ve mastered the semicolon, check out the article on colons as well!

The Solution to the Comma Splice

You’ve probably seen sentences like this, it’s got two complete ideas but the writer uses only a comma to join them. Many people don’t realize that sentences like the previous one are grammatically incorrect, though. If you have two independent clauses, then you must either break them into two separate sentences or join them appropriately (and a comma can’t do that alone).

Consider this example: “Cats are fluffy, they make really nice pets.” This sentence features two independent clauses with a typical comma splice. How can we fix it?

Option 1: break it apart

Cats are fluffy. They make really nice pets.

Option 2: use a coordinating conjunction

Cats are fluffy, and they make really nice pets.

Option 3: use a subordinating conjunction

Since cats are fluffy, they make really nice pets.

Option 4: use a semicolon

Cats are fluffy; they make really nice pets.

Is it really that simple?

Yes, you can just drop a semicolon in-between two independent clauses to connect them while making the ideas distinct. The semicolon does not give any suggestion about the nature of the connection between the ideas, though, so the two clauses might agree or disagree as long as they are somewhat related. If they are not related at all, of course, it would probably be better to break them into separate sentences. Note that you should not use a semicolon before a coordinating conjunction: that’s the job of a comma!

Complex Lists

Semicolons also have a place in complex lists. This type of list is any collection of phrases that require commas within a single phrase, making the use of commas to separate them confusing. For example, you should consider using semicolons if you want to list cities and states like Austin, Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; and Juneau, Alaska. Since you need to use commas to offset the name of the state, it would be really confusing if you also tried to differentiate the list items with commas as well. Take a look: Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia, and Juneau, Alaska. If you’re not already intimately familiar with US state capitals, you’re going to have no idea what’s what in that list. The previous example with semicolons should be much more clear; this is the basis for using semicolons in lists: improving clarity. Notice that when separating items in a list with semicolons, you do need to include a semicolon before the last “and” (despite disagreement about the use of commas in similar positions).

Practice Time!

Re-write the following sentences so they use a semicolon instead of the existing structure. Some of them are grammatically correct and some are not; edit them to use a semicolon in either case. You may need to remove existing punctuation and/or conjunctions. Check your answers at the end of the page.

  1. That book is a real page-turner. I’ll lend it to you when I’m finished.
  2. I love the rain, and I think other people should appreciate it too.
  3. I wonder if my friend is free this weekend I really want to go on a trip.
  4. I wrote that last week, I hope my English was ok.
  5. I’m learning so much about English. Soon, I’ll be a master of punctuation too!

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Answers:

  1. That book is a real page-turner; I’ll lend it to you when I’m finished.
  2. I love the rain; I think other people should appreciate it too.
  3. I wonder if my friend is free this weekend; I really want to go on a trip.
  4. I wrote that last week; I hope my English was ok.
  5. I’m learning so much about English; soon, I’ll be a master of punctuation too!

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