SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How and When to Use a Semicolon

Posted by Hayley Milliman | Jan 5, 2020 5:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Do you know when to use a semicolon? Do you know how to use a semicolon? If not, don’t worry! In this article, we break down exactly what semicolons are and how to use this unique (but often frustrating!) punctuation mark. We also go over what semicolon examples look like and give you tips for when to use and not use them.

 

What Is a Semicolon?

A semicolon is a punctuation mark that looks like a period stacked on top of a comma. However, a semicolon isn’t used the same way a period or comma is—it has its own rules for when and how it can be used.

Let’s explore those rules.

 

When to Use a Semicolon: 3 Key Rules

Here are the three essential rules for when to use a semicolon.

 

Rule 1: Use a Semicolon to Connect Related Independent Clauses

A semicolon can be used to join related independent clauses if the clauses share a close and logical connection.

What does this mean?

An independent clause is a complete sentence, meaning it could stand by itself. That said, if your complete sentence is closely related to ideas expressed in another complete sentence, you can join them with a semicolon.

Here's an example:

We ran out of food at home; my boyfriend went to the store.

In this example, the two independent clauses are "We ran out of food at home" and "my boyfriend went to the store."

The ideas expressed in each independent clause are related—they both have to do with eating. So, they can be joined together by a semicolon.

 

Rule 2: Use a Semicolon to Divide Items in a List

While commas are most commonly used to separate items in a list, you can use semicolons in their stead if the items are long or contain internal punctuation.

Here's an example of how this works:

On my trip around the world, I went to Cape Town, South Africa; Cairns, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; and Tokyo, Japan.

In this sentence, the items in the list contain internal punctuation (commas). It would be confusing to use more commas to separate the items here, so instead you can (and should) use a semicolon.

 

Rule 3: Use a Semicolon With Conjunctive Adverbs

A conjunctive adverb is a word that joins two independent clauses into one sentence. Common conjunctive adverbs include the following:

  • Moreover
  • Nevertheless
  • Otherwise
  • Therefore
  • Finally
  • Likewise
  • Consequently

You should generally use a semicolon before a conjunctive adverb.

For example:

I had planned to go out with my friends; however, I was very tired.

The conjunctive adverb in this sentence is "however," which brings together the two clauses ("I had planned to go out with my friends" and "I was very tired"). You'd put a semicolon right before the conjunctive adverb that joins the two clauses.

 

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How to Use a Semicolon: 4 Essential Tips

There are several rules to remember for how to use a semicolon properly.

 

#1: Don’t Replace a Comma or Period With a Semicolon (or Vice Versa)

Semicolons are not commas—they have their own rules that govern proper usage. So don't just replace a comma with a semicolon (or vice versa). If you do this, you're most likely wrong and will end up with a comma splice.

Incorrect: It is nearly dark, we should go home.
Correct: It is nearly dark; we should go home.

As both of the clauses in this example are independent, a semicolon should separate them. If you use a comma here, you'd be creating a comma splice, which is grammatically incorrect.

 

#2: Delete the Conjunction

A semicolon often acts like a conjunction in that both join independent clauses. Because a semicolon does the same job as a conjunction, using them together would be redundant (unless it’s a list).

Incorrect: I went to the mall to go shopping; and my mom came with me.
Correct: I went to the mall to go shopping; my mom came with me.

 

#3: Skip the Capital Letters

Most of the time, you don’t need to use a capital letter after a semicolon.

Let’s look at the above example again:

Incorrect: I went to the mall to go shopping; My mom came with me.
Correct: I went to the mall to go shopping; my mom came with me.

As you can see, it looks strange to have "my" capitalized here since it's neither the beginning of a sentence nor a proper noun.

There is one exception to this rule, though: if the word coming after the semicolon is a proper noun or an acronym, then you should still capitalize it.

Incorrect: I went out with my friends last night; fridays are my favorite.
Correct: I went out with my friends last night; Fridays are my favorite.

 

#4: Except in a List, Your Semicolon Should Always Be Replaceable by a Period

Except when you’re listing items in a series, your semicolon should always be replaceable by a period (or vice versa).

Once again, let’s take a look at our previous example:

Correct: I went to the mall to go shopping; my mom came with me.
Also Correct: I went to the mall to go shopping. My mom came with me.

Both examples are grammatically correct. Because semicolons can be used to connect related independent clauses, they are often interchangeable with periods.

That said, semicolons are not interchangeable with periods when used in a list:

Incorrect: The road trip included stops in Lake Placid, New York. Boston, Massachusetts. and Providence, Rhode Island.

Correct: The road trip included stops in Lake Placid, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; and Providence, Rhode Island.

Since items in a list are not independent clauses, they cannot be separated by periods.

 

When to Use a Semicolon: 3 Examples to Test Your Skills

Let’s test your semicolon skills using the following semicolon examples. For each problem, choose which sentence (A or B) is grammatically correct.

 

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Semicolon Example 1

Sentence A: The road trip included stops in Lake Placid; New York, Boston; Massachusetts, and Providence; Rhode Island.

Sentence B: The road trip included stops in Lake Placid, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; and Providence, Rhode Island.

The correct sentence is Sentence B. A semicolon should be used to separate each item in a list. In Sentence A, the semicolon does not correctly separate the items in the list (it separates the cities from their states).

 

Semicolon Example 2

Sentence A: My mother went back to college; and, she studied psychology.
Sentence B: My mother went back to college; she studied psychology.

Sentence B is correct because using a coordinating conjunction with a semicolon is redundant.

 

Semicolon Example 3

Sentence A: I hoped to go home early; however, work was very busy.
Sentence B: I hoped to go home early, however; work was very busy.

Sentence A is correct. You should use a semicolon before a conjunctive adverb, not after.

 

Final Thoughts: How and When to Use a Semicolon

A semicolon is a unique type of punctuation mark used to join independent clauses or divide items in a list. In many instances semicolons can be used interchangeably with periods; however, they have their own rules that govern their usage.

Make sure to refer back to the semicolon examples above if you have any lingering confusion over how to use a semicolon!

 

What's Next?

Confused by what a prepositional phrase is? Check out our comprehensive guide to how to use this grammatical structure (coming soon).

We've got the most comprehensive list of adverbs around. You can read it here!

Looking for a break from grammar? We've also got guides on nucleotides, SOHCAHTOA, animal cells, and more. There's something for everyone on the PrepScholar blog!

 

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Hayley Milliman
About the Author

Hayley Milliman is a former teacher turned writer who blogs about education, history, and technology. When she was a teacher, Hayley's students regularly scored in the 99th percentile thanks to her passion for making topics digestible and accessible. In addition to her work for PrepScholar, Hayley is the author of Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females.



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