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.
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.
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.