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Grammar 101: Understanding The Semicolon and How To Use Them

Updated Nov 19, 2022

What Is a Semicolon?

A semicolon is a punctuation mark used to connect two independent clauses. An independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a complete sentence.

For example, "I eat breakfast every morning" is an independent clause. We can use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses, like this: "I eat breakfast every morning; I never skip it."

We can also use semicolons to join items in a list when those items themselves contain commas. For example, this often happens in lists of places, like this: "I have been to New York, New York; Los Angeles, California; and Portland, Oregon."

How To Use a Semicolon

You can use semicolons to join items in a list when those items themselves contain commas. This often happens in lists of places, like this: "I have been to Cape Town, South Africa; Rome, Italy; and Vancouver, Canada."

You can also use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses that are closely related. For example, "I have a big project due tomorrow; I can't go to the party tonight," and "I'm almost out of coffee; I need to go to the store."

Additionally, you can also use a semicolon before conjunctions like "however," "thus," and "therefore" when they join two independent clauses. For example, "it's raining outside; therefore, I can't go for a walk."

Pro tip: If you are unsure whether your sentence needs a comma or a semicolon, try replacing the semicolon with a comma. If the sentence still makes sense, use a comma. If the sentence doesn’t make sense, use a semicolon.

Semicolon Misuse

One of the most common mistakes people make with semicolons is confusing them with other punctuation marks. So pay attention to where you put them, and remember that semicolons are not interchangeable with commas or colons.

It is important to remember that a semicolon is not simply a stronger form of a comma. Instead, they serve different grammatical functions, and using them interchangeably often results in errors.

Remember that a semicolon connects two closely related, independent clauses that can stand as complete sentences. However, dependent clauses cannot form complete sentences independently, so they must be joined to the main clause with a comma.

A common mistake is using a comma instead of a semicolon to join independent clauses. This creates an error called a comma splice.

For example, “the professor is currently on academic leave, she is in Italy researching for her book on Renaissance ivory carvings” is a comma splice, and should be, “the professor is currently on academic leave; she is in Italy researching for her book on Renaissance ivory carvings,” instead.

Instead of being combined into one sentence, these two clauses must be separated; they can be connected with a semicolon or conjunction.

Also, although semicolons and colons look similar, they serve different purposes. For example, semicolons are typically used to connect two independent clauses, while colons are used to introduce a list or a statement.

Pro tip: If you’re still unsure whether you should use a semicolon, try reading your sentence out loud. If you pause after the first clause, and it sounds natural, then use a semicolon. On the other hand, use a comma or period if it sounds awkward or you have to pause for a long time.

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