Semicolons sound complicated, but they are very straightforward to use. After all, a form of punctuation commonly used in text speak as a winking emoji or as part of a smile can’t be intimidating, right?
Read our guide and become an expert at semicolon usage.
The semicolon is a symbol that marks a longer pause than the comma.1 It is frequently used to indicate a clear separation in the sentence without using a full stop.
Although terminal marks show the end of a sentence, the comma, semicolon, and colon are normally sentence-internal, making them secondary boundary marks.
The semicolon is halfway between terminal marks and the comma; its strength is the same as that of the colon.
The plural of semicolon is semicola or semicolons.
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What are the rules for using semicolons?
Here are the rules for using semicolons. We use it:
- To separate propositions or expressions that have a slight relationship between them but a logical link
- When the second clause begins with an adverb
- To put two proposals in parallel
Notes: The semicolon is always used in the middle of a sentence and is never followed by a capital letter unless it is a proper noun, such as a name or a place name.
Semicolons in lists
Semicolons can be used to separate the terms of a list, introduced by a colon.2 It is used to formulate enumerations. The last item is followed by a period.
Semicolons vs. commas
The difference between semicolons and commas may be outlined very easily. When a comma separates two sentences joined by a conjunction, the comma and the conjunction may be replaced with a semicolon.
Alternatively, a semicolon may also be replaced by a full stop followed by a capital letter.
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As we have mentioned, you cannot use a semicolon to connect two unrelated independent clauses, although these can appear together as separate sentences.
- Incorrect: I hurt my knee; my dog needs someone to walk him.
- Correct: I hurt my knee. My dog needs someone to walk him.
- Use a semicolon to join related independent clauses. An independent clause is a sentence that expresses an entire thought and makes sense on its own.
- Use a semicolon with a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase.
- Use semicolons to separate items in a list.
A semicolon does not represent a full stop at the end of a sentence, as periods do; instead, they’re like the “amber light” of punctuation marks: they signal a pause or a breathing space between one sentence and the next.
1 Dictionary Cambridge. “Semicolon.” Accessed September 15, 2022. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/semicolon.
2 BBC. “How to use semicolons in a list.” Accessed September 15, 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zr6bxyc/articles/zhntng8.