How to Use a Semicolon Properly

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I’ve discussed semicolons before, and I’ve linked to helpful and entertaining explanations elsewhere, but for a variety of reasons I thought it would be worthwhile to recover the basics of the semicolon.

Few student writers know how to use semicolons. They sometimes try sticking them various places, but almost always get nothing back but red ink and suggestions like, “Just use a period here,” or, “All you need is a comma.” For many people the solution is to just avoid semicolons altogether. But semicolons aren’t that hard. Here’s a way to illustrate the role of semicolons that you might find easy to remember:

It helps to think of the period as the strongest punctuation mark because it signals a full stop at the end of a complete thought. Commas are the weakest. They just ask you meekly to pause. People push commas around. Sometimes we just ignore them, moving right along without pausing at all. I mean, what’s a scrawny little comma going to do about it anyway? Periods, on the other hand, you’d better listen to. Notice that a semicolon looks like a period sitting on top of a comma. It also functions like a cross between them. Like the period, it can signal the end of a complete thought, but like the comma, it doesn’t signal the end of a sentence.

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Connecting Independent Clauses

We use semicolons mostly to indicate that even though a complete thought has ended, the sentence is still going.  A semicolon, therefore, is used to connect independent clauses that are linked so closely that they seem to belong in the same sentence:

  • My fish tank is full of clown fish; Stanley’s is full of goldfish.            
  • I’ve never liked roller coasters; they make my stomach flip.  

With Conjunctive Adverbs

There is a list of transition words called conjunctive adverbs that always need a semicolon when used to connect independent clauses. These are great words to become familiar with as they help show how one sentence is related to another. Here are some of the more common conjunctive adverbs (some of them are compound —made up of more than one word).

addition again, also, besides, equally important, finally, first, further, furthermore, in addition, moreover, next, second, still, too
comparison also, in the same way, likewise, similarly
concession granted, naturally, of course
contrast although, at the same time, despite that, even so, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, instead, nevertheless, on the other hand, otherwise, regardless, still, though, yet
emphasis certainly, indeed, in fact, of course
example or illustration after all, as an illustration, even, for example, for instance, in conclusion, indeed, in fact, in other words, in short, it is true, of course, namely, specifically, that is, to illustrate, thus, truly
summary all in all, altogether, finally, in brief, in other words, in particular, in short, in simpler terms, in summary, on the whole, that is, therefore, to put it differently, to summarize
time sequence afterward, again, also, as long as, at last, at length, at that time, before, besides, earlier, eventually, finally, formerly, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, in the past, last, lately, meanwhile, moreover, next, now, presently, second, shortly, since,  still, subsequently, then, thereafter, too, until, until now

What do conjunctive adverbs have to do with semicolons? Well, when a conjunctive adverb connects independent clauses, it is necessary to put a semicolon before it and a comma after:

  • The sheriff tried to cut the ropes that held him; meanwhile, the Glanton Gang took the opportunity to steal some more horses.
  • I’ve been to France several times; however, I’ve never visited the Louvre.

Complex Series

The only other use for a semicolon is to clarify a complex series. Listing word groups that already require commas can get confusing. Semicolons can come to the rescue:

  • I’ve visited Meridian, Mississippi; Eugene, Oregon; and Canton, Ohio.
  • The team was led by Gene Stanley, head coach; Larry Stepford, line coach; Earle Blackfoot, defensive coach; and Tommy Voorhees, special teams coach.

If you are not presently comfortable using semicolons, just learn the two uses above — to join independent clauses and to connect parts of a complex series — and start working them into your writing.  

Care to test your semicolon skills? Try this free 10-question quiz.

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Here’s a pinnable poster that summarizes semicolon rules. You can find others in our Free Resource Library.

Semicolon poster

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As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Use the Reply section below.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Angie B. Williams
    Angie B. Williams03-02-2013

    Brian, I think I forgot to tell you that I scored 100 on your quiz!

    Also, it’s not technology per se, but our sometimes unhealthy reliance on it rather than on brain power. The grammar and spell check programs often give inaccurate suggestions, and if one does not know proper usage, many errors can occur.

  2. Rhonda Barfield
    Rhonda Barfield02-20-2013

    Helpful, Brian, as always!

  3. Angie B. Williams
    Angie B. Williams02-16-2013

    Brian,

    Thanks so much for your quiz. I did not find it difficult; however, I understand that some may. As always, it is a great reminder to get back to the basics; however, modern technology has wreaked havoc with proper communications.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko02-16-2013

      Glad you like it, Angie, but I am less critical of modern technology. I think it is merely changing what is considered proper communications.

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