Writing Tips

How (And When) To Use Semicolons

By Jan 23, 20196 Comments

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I love semicolons; they may be my favorite punctuation mark.

I know that sounds incredibly geeky, both because I have a favorite punctuation mark and because I know how to use semicolons correctly.

I don’t want to get all English teacher (or journalism professor, since it was in J school that I learned how to use them) on you, but it really does lend your writing more credibility when you use words and punctuation correctly.

Using semicolons is probably not as difficult as you think. There are only a few places it’s proper to use them, and it’s pretty easy to learn.

Writing Tip | Learn how and when to use semicolons correctly.

Semicolons Are a Longish Pause

Part of deciding whether to use a comma, semicolon, or period in a sentence is actually a matter of style and rhythm. Consider the following options:

I love semicolons, and they may be my favorite punctuation mark.

I love semicolons; they may be my favorite punctuation mark.

I love semicolons. They may be my favorite punctuation mark.

Did you read each of those a little differently? They’re all correct, but each punctuation mark after the first statement sounds a little different.

A comma is barely a breath. A period is a full stop. A semicolon is somewhere in between; it’s a longish pause.

So how and when is it correct to use a semicolon? There are a few reasons you might need them.

In a List with a Lot of Commas

My favorite reference book from my journalism school days, Media Writer’s Handbook: A Guide to Common Writing and Editing Problems by George T. Arnold, says “semicolons are marvelous organizers, especially in sentences that already contain commas. When they are used correctly, semicolons enable us to reduce significantly the potential confusion that could occur in writing.”

An example is when you are writing a list where the individual items contain commas. In this case, you need semicolons to help set off the parts of the list that go together. For example:

Conference attendees came from as far away as Paris, Arkansas; London, California; and New Madrid, Missouri.

Without a semicolon you would think people came from Paris and Arkansas, not Paris, Arkansas.

As a Pause Joining Two Independent Clauses

When two independent clauses – meaning two statements that could each stand alone as sentences – are closely related, you can link them with a semicolon instead of using a period between them.

The first sentence of this post is an example of that usage.

The key is making sure that both parts of the sentence could stand alone before using a semicolon; you can’t just throw in a semicolon wherever you want.

Because it’s the end of the year; it’s the perfect time to catch up on your bookkeeping.

“Because it’s the end of the year” isn’t a sentence on its own, so a comma should be used here instead.

A semicolon can also be used with two independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb (ooh, I got all grammar geeky on you there, didn’t I?).

All that means is the sentence has a modifier that works like a conjunction to hold the two parts of the sentence together. Some examples are therefore, however, and consequently.

An example, from Media Writer’s Handbook:

The company president said she wanted to give copywriters a salary increase; however, she said a small profit margin in the last fiscal year made raises impossible.

If you look at both parts of the sentence, they could stand alone, but the however links them. When you use a conjunctive adverb you always have a semicolon before it and a comma after it.

The semicolon is almost never essential; most sentences could be rewritten to avoid its use. But it’s an easy way to change up your rhythm, to show some style, and to make sentences clearer. Who wouldn’t want that?

How do you feel about semicolons? I’d love to know your thoughts.

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About Sarah White

Sarah is a freelance writer, editor, crafter, blogger and mom living in Arkansas. She writes the knitting websites for About.com and CraftGossip.com as well as her own blog, Our Daily Craft, where she writes about crafting with and for kids, creativity for moms and other busy people, and creating the life you've always wanted. She's the author of three knitting books and is always looking for ways to craft a little more fun in her days. Her six-year-old daughter and geeky husband keep her busy and full of project ideas. Keep up with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.