When it comes to grammar rules, semicolon rules are some of the hardest to remember, but this guide will help you figure them out and keep them straight.
Punctuation is a tricky thing in the English language, and remembering semicolon rules can be hard for a number of people. Knowing when to use a semicolon and when to use a comma will make your writing stronger and more professional.
Thankfully, there are a few rules that can make it easier for writers to keep the semicolon and comma question straight.
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Decoding Semicolon Rules
The semicolon and the comma do similar things in a sentence. They both separate ideas to make meanings clearer. However, semicolon rules are a bit different than comma rules and deserve a closer look. You might also find our explainer on if a period goes inside parentheses helpful.
What Is a Semicolon?
Before delving into semicolon rules, first, take some time to learn what a semicolon is.
A semicolon is a punctuation mark that looks like a comma on the bottom and a period on top. It indicates a pause in the sentence and can be used to join one complete sentence with another complete sentence to form one thought.
Using semicolons correctly is the mark of becoming a better writer. If you can gain this skill and know-how, you will be able to write strong, clear sentences.
1. Use A Semicolon To Join Two Or More Related Independent Clauses
The main reason that a writer would use a semicolon is when separating two or more independent clauses, but keeping them in the same sentence instead of using them as separate sentences.
Because an independent clause forms a complete thought, the two clauses need some sort of separation. Here is an example:
- Sam thought Janna was cute, but was afraid to ask her out; Janna was having the same thoughts.
Because these two independent clauses are closely connected and have similar weight in the sentence, they make sense when joined with a semicolon. The sentence could also be written as two separate sentences, as in:
- Sam thought Janna was cute, but was afraid to ask her out. Janna was having the same thoughts.
By keeping them as one sentence in the first example, the writer is showing they are connected.
2. Use A Semicolon When Joining Two Or More Independent Clauses Separated By A Conjunctive Adverb
If there is a conjunctive adverb in between the two independent clauses, or some other sort of transitional phrase, then the semicolon is used. For example:
- Sam thought Janna was cute, but was afraid to ask her out; interestingly, Janna was having the same thoughts.
This one is easy to get mixed up because the adverb can look like conjunction. Writers need to look carefully to determine if the word is a conjunction or an adverb. If it is an adverb, use the semicolon.
3. Use a Semicolon to Separate Items in Complex Lists with Internal Punctuation
When a list of items has commas in the list, such as cities with states, then they need semicolons between them. Here is an example:
- On our vacation we traveled to Boston, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and Augusta, Maine.
Long lists items can also require a semicolon. Here is an example:
- On their senior trip to NYC, the class took some long, leisurely walks through Central Park; saw Hamilton, Wicked and The Lion King on Broadway; and ate at several world-famous restaurants.
4. Use A Semicolon When Joining Two Long Independent Clauses That Have A Coordinating Conjunction
This is one of the trickier semicolon rules. If you are joining two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, and those independent clauses are long and already have commas, a semicolon works best. Here is an example:
The research scientist knew it was important to find the cause of the problem, as well as the contributing factors that were making it worse; for only by understanding the root cause could he, with the help of his team, create a workable solution.
When Not to Use a Semicolon
If you are connecting two independent clauses but are using a coordinating conjunction, such as and, but, or, nor or yet, then do not use a semicolon. In this instance, use a comma before the conjunction.
If you are connecting two independent clauses with a subordinating conjunction, such as because or although, do not use any punctuation.
For sentences with a dependent clause that requires punctuation, do not use a semicolon. Use a comma. For example:
- The journalist grabbed a notepad, which was on his desk, before running out the door for the interview.
“Which was on his desk” is a dependent clause that requires a comma, but a semicolon would be incorrect in this instance.
Colons vs Semicolons
Semicolons and commas perform similar roles in a sentence, but colons and semicolons are often confused. A colon is used to introduce items in a series or open a formal letter.
However, sometimes colons are used to separate independent clauses, but only in one specific instance. Use the colon when the second clause explains or expands the first. Here is an example:
- Johnathan realized his dream had finally come true: he was being asked to star in the school musical.
In this sentence, both phrases are independent clauses and could be separate sentences, but the internal punctuation shows that they are closely related.
The Final Word on Semicolon Rules
Semicolon rules can be tricky to nail down, but they are important. Semicolons are not just stronger versions of a comma.
They have specific uses, such as joining independent clauses without a conjunction or joining items in a list that are long or already have commas, and good writers will learn to use them correctly every time.
FAQs About Semicolon Rules
Is a semicolon just a stronger comma?
Though semicolons and commas are used in similar instances, such as to list items in a series, they are not the same thing. A semicolon has specific times when it is grammatically correct to use this punctuation mark.
When do you use a semicolon in a list of items?
Use a semicolon in lists that have internal punctuation, like commas, to show where the list items are separated.
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