Semicolons

Use punctuation marks to separate closely-related independent clauses.

A semicolon is a punctuation mark used to separate closely-related sentences.


Use a semicolon to link two closely-related independent clauses.

Semicolons separate two independent clauses that contain related information. An independent clause is a group of words containing subject and a verb that expresses a complete thought. 

I said I’d do it; I didn’t say when I would do it.

This semicolon is often used to replace “, and” in your sentence, often to introduce variety into the sentence structure. If you have two complete sentences, and they would make sense with a comma and between them, you can also use a semicolon to join them.

Note: This only works if the sentences are related in content. Just as a comma and, you need the first sentence to have something to do with the second sentence in order for the whole thing to make sense.

It was raining; I wore my raincoat.

This sentence could also read: It was raining, and I wore my raincoat.

OR

It was raining, so I wore my raincoat.

The ideas here are connected in some way. Compare the previous example with this next one:

It was raining; coffee is a tasty beverage. 

In this example, the two sentences are not related at all, so it doesn’t make any sense. This would be semicolon abuse!

You can show that ideas are closely related by using a semicolon rather than a period between them.

The secretary’s fingers burned across the typewriter; the financial statements would be picked up by the client in one hour.

The question, though, is not economics; it is professional objectivity.

Breast cancer used to be the biggest killer for women; now it’s lung cancer.

Homelessness is a problem that has evaded resolution; despite the heroic efforts of many concerned citizens, there are still thousands left on the streets.

When elements in a series require internal commas to ensure clarity, then semicolons must be used to separate those elements:

Use semicolons to separate items in a list that contains commas

The committee included John Smith, the doctor; Rory Williams, the mathematician; Jim Steinman, the artist; and Harry Henderson, the scientist.

A perfect vacation would be long, relaxing, and cheap; include personable, sweet, flexible people; and make everything else seem trivial.

The delegates were from Sacramento, California; Jacksonville, Florida; Providence, Rhode Island; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

A good proofreader must have good grammar, punctuation, and spelling skills; must like to read; and must have patience.

Concerned citizens can protect the environment by driving a fuel efficient car, such as a hybrid; recycling glass, plastic, and paper; and buying products with less packaging material.

Use a semicolon to link two independent clauses that have a transitional expression between them.

The essay was well-written; therefore, the writer received a high grade.

Sending a text message while driving can cause a driver to take his eyes off the road; therefore, he may choose to put his cell phone in the trunk.

In this case, the semicolon is placed before the connecting word (furthermore, consequently, however, on the other hand, etc.) and a comma is placed after the connecting word and before the start of the second sentence.

Avoid misuse of semicolons

  • A semicolon should not be used to introduce a list (of three items or more); use a colon instead.
  • Do not use a semicolon to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause; use a comma instead.
  • Do not follow a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction; use a comma instead.

Note, however, that you are wise to avoid using unnecessary semicolons. Experienced writers and readers would prefer the second sentence because it avoids self-conscious punctuation.

  • He was dressed in white pants; a white, Mexican wedding shirt; and sandals.
  • He was dressed in a white, Mexican wedding shirt, white pants, and sandals.

Related Concepts

Edit for Semicolons