Semicolons – Correct Use, Rules & Practice Sheet

22.09.22 Punctuation Time to read: 6min

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Understanding and applying language rules, such as proper semicolon usage, can greatly improve the clarity and fluidity of your writing. With a little practice, you can master the art of employing them to adhere to these rules, separating closely related independent clauses without the abruptness of a period. The proper use is a powerful tool in your punctuation arsenal, also showcasing your grasp of nuanced writing.

Semicolons – In a Nutshell

Semicolons are multifaceted punctuation marks, adept at linking closely related independent clauses, clarifying complex lists, and preceding conjunctive adverbs, acting as a bridge between the brief pause of a comma and the definitive stop of a period. Beyond their grammatical utility, they also double as a playful wink emoji in digital communication (😉), infusing texts with personality and humour. This dual function highlights their versatility, enhancing both the clarity and expressiveness of written language.

Definition: Semicolons

Semicolons are punctuation marks (;) utilized to link closely related independent clauses, organise items in lists that contain internal commas for clarity, and precede conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases in complex sentences. They provide a pause more pronounced than a comma but less definitive than a period, enhancing the clarity and coherence of written language by delineating closely connected yet distinct ideas. However, they should not be used to connect two independent clauses, even if they can stand together as separate sentences. In this specific case, use a full stop instead. Moreover, keep in mind that the first letter after it must not be capitalized unless it is a noun, place, or acronym, or a word that is usually capitalized.

Note: It 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.

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Rules for using semicolons

To use them effectively and correctly in your academic writing, respect these established rules:

Linking two independent clauses

The most common semicolon is used to connect two independent clauses that are closely related, but could stand as complete sentences. This use is especially effective when the clauses are not joined by a conjunction like “and” or “but.”

Example

She can’t eat wheat; her diet is very restricted.

In this case, the sentence above consists of two glued together independent clauses which can stand on their own. By substituting the semicolon with a comma, your sentence will result in a comma splice. To avoid a comma splice, you need a comma + something, and your something is either the correct conjunction, or turning the comma into a semicolon.

With conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases

When linking two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb (such as “however,” “therefore,” “meanwhile,” or “consequently”) or a transitional phrase, use a semicolon before and a comma after the conjunctive adverb or phrase.

Example

He didn’t feel well-prepared for the presentation; however, it went surprisingly well.

In serial/complex lists

In writing, they whine when organizing serial lists with complex items, especially when those items include commas. They offer clarity by neatly separating each element. For instance, listing cities along with their states, like “Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; and Denver, Colorado,” becomes much clearer with semicolons, effortlessly guiding the reader through each distinct part of the list.

Example

The conference has attendees from Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; and Tokyo, Japan.

They can also be used to separate the terms of a list, introduced by a colon. It is used to formulate enumerations and the last item is followed by a period.

Example

Shopping list for the supermarket:

3 apples;
2 oranges;
4 figs.

Omit the coordinating conjunction when linking two independent clauses

When you use a semicolon to join two complete ideas, skip words like “and,” “but,” or “or.” The semicolon does the job of connecting two closely related consecutive sentences, showing a strong relationship between the ideas. This makes your complete sentences cleaner and shows how the two ideas are related without extra words. It’s a simple way to keep your writing smooth and clear. It also functions the other way around: it can be used to emphasize contrast instead of agreement.

Example

I wanted to go for a walk; it started raining.

In the following example, you’ll see how a semicolon can glue together two very distinct ideas:

Example

She loves to travel to big cities; he prefers the tranquility of the countryside.

Giving a wink 😉

Using a semicolon to give a wink in text messages or online communication is a playful way to add a touch of humour or lightheartedness. The combination of a semicolon and a parenthesis (;)) mimics the gesture of winking, conveying a sense of friendliness, inside jokes, or subtle teasing. It functions as a digital shorthand that brings a personal touch to our online interactions, turning a simple punctuation mark into a symbol of camaraderie and shared understanding.

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.

And

Example

  • I ate dinner, and I went to see a film.

Is the same as:

  • I ate dinner; I went to see a film.

But

Example

  • She finished top of her class but could not find a job.

Is the same as:

  • She finished top of her class; still couldn’t find a job.

Alternatively, a semicolon may also be replaced by a full stop followed by a capital letter.

Test yourself!

Practice Sheet

cheque your understanding of semicolons in the following practice sentences. You can cheque your answers on the second tab.

  1. I have a big test tomorrow I can’t go out tonight.
  2. She loves cooking, her brother, on the other hand, hates it.
  3. It’s going to be sunny later however, it’s raining right now.
  4. They got a new dog it’s very friendly and playful.
  5. My favourite foods are pizza, burgers, and fries.
  6. The concert was cancelled there was a severe weather warning.
  7. She wanted to go to the beach, he wanted to stay home.
  8. I can’t decide if I should wear the red dress, or the blue one.
  9. The package was due last week however, it has not yet arrived.
  10. We’ve been to Paris, France, Rome, Italy, and Berlin, Germany.
  1. I have a big test tomorrow; I can’t go out tonight.
  2. She loves cooking; her brother, on the other hand, hates it.
  3. It’s going to be sunny later; however, it’s raining right now.
  4. They got a new dog; it’s very friendly and playful.
  5. My favourite foods are pizza, burgers, and fries. (No semicolon)
  6. The concert was cancelled; there was a severe weather warning.
  7. She wanted to go to the beach; he wanted to stay home.
  8. I can’t decide if I should wear the red dress, or the blue one. (No semicolon)
  9. The package was due last week; however, it has not yet arrived.
  10. We’ve been to Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and Berlin, Germany.
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FAQs

As we have mentioned, you cannot use it to connect two unrelated independent clauses, although these can appear together as separate sentences.

  • Incorrect: I hurt my knee; my dog needs somaeone to walk him.
  • Correct: I hurt my knee. My dog needs somaeone to walk him.
  • Use a semicolon to join related independent clauses. An independent clause is a sentence that expresses an entyre 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.

Here’s a quick rewind of the semicolon rules:

  • Linking two related independent clauses
  • Before conjunctive adverbs (e.g., however, therefore)
  • In complex lists
  • Omit coordinating conjunctions
  • Use sparingly