Proper Punctuation: Semicolons

When to Use Semicolons

 

Semicolons vs. periods

 
Semicolons are not used all that often by writers. This is because a period usually does just about as well as a semicolon in most instances. Both periods and semicolons are used to separate two independent clauses. Both indicate that one thought has ended and that a new thought is beginning. A semicolon also indicates that the thought that is about to come is very closely related to the one which was just read. A period does not indicate this (though it is perfectly fine to separate two closely related thoughts with a period).

Semicolons are more effective than periods when the writer wants to emphasize that one sentence explains, contrasts, or in some other way affects the other. Examples of phrases in which a semicolon is more effective that a period will be seen throughout the rest of this article which discusses rules for when it is appropriate to consider using a semicolon.
 

Use a semicolon between two independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction.

 
When two independent clauses could be joined by a conjunction, but are not, a semicolon is often a more effective option than making each clause its own sentence.

For instance, “My clothes are soaked because it’s really pouring out there,” could be rewritten as:

“My clothes are soaked; it’s really pouring out there.”

However, if it wouldn’t make much sense for the clauses to be in the same sentence, even with a conjunction, a semicolon should not be used; a period should be used instead. For instance, the semicolon in the following passage was not wisely-used:

“I’m going to my parents’ for dinner; my brother, his wife, and their kids will be there, too.”

These two thoughts are quite separate from one another. A period should have been used instead of the semicolon.
 

Use a semicolon between two independent clauses that are separated by a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase.

 
When a clause contains a conjunctive adverb — such as furthermore, therefore, or nevertheless — or a transitional phrase — such as for example or in other words — it is usually a good indicator that this clause is closely related to the preceding clause. Therefore, it is often slightly better to use a semicolon instead of a period to separate the two clauses.

Here is an example:

“There were a lot of options on the menu; however, none of them sounded good to me.”

A period would have been fine in place of the semicolon in this example, but the semicolon does a somewhat better job of linking the two clauses.

Sometimes, a semicolon is inappropriate in these situations, particularly when one of the clauses is fairly long. I chose to separate two such clauses that were linked by the conjunctive adverb therefore a couple of paragraphs ago, as a semicolon would have made the sentence far too long.

Here is what I wrote:

“When a clause contains a conjunctive adverb — such as furthermore, therefore, or nevertheless — or a transitional phrase — such as for example or in other words — it is usually a good indicator that this clause is closely related to the preceding clause. Therefore, it is often slightly better to use a semicolon instead of a period to separate the two clauses.”

Notice how the passage doesn’t seem quite right when a semicolon is used instead of a period:

“When a clause contains a conjunctive adverb — such as furthermore, therefore, or nevertheless — or a transitional phrase — such as for example or in other words — it is usually a good indicator that this clause is closely related to the preceding clause; therefore, it is often slightly better to use a semicolon instead of a period to separate the two clauses.”

 

Use semicolons between terms in a list when the terms contain commas.

 
This topic has been discussed in an article I wrote on common list-writing questions.

It is very confusing for a reader to read his or her way through a list when commas are used not only to separate the items of the list but also to separate individual elements within the items themselves. Thus, semicolons are used to separate the items for the sake of clarity.

Comparing the two sentences below shows why semicolons must be used instead of commas for certain lists.

“The group was split into small teams: Haley, Joel, and Patrick, Adam, Jamie, and Sarah, and me, Chris, and Matt.”

“The group was split into small teams: Haley, Joel, and Patrick; Adam, Jamie, and Sarah; and me, Chris, and Matt.”

As you can see, the second sentence is much easier to read.
 


 
Jake Magnum, author of the Magnum Proofreading Tips blog, is dedicated to helping writers perfect their work. In addition to giving free advice on his blog, Jake helps writers by offering very affordable proofreading services at magnumproofreading.com.

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