When to Use a Semicolon

Q: I would like some help on the use of the semicolon in sentences. —Roger L.

A: The semicolon is a tricky beast, but it does serve specific purposes in sentence structure. Before getting to its uses, it’s best to understand what the semicolon really is.

The semicolon is a hybrid of a period and comma. Its construction, according to WritersDigestUniversity‘s former Education Services Manager Joe Stollenwerk, suggests its intention to be stronger than a comma, but not as final as a period.

The four main uses for a semicolon are:

1. To join independent clauses when the comma/coordinating conjunction construction would be stylistically weaker. Dancing is for the birds; the Chicken Dance is for weddings.

2. Separating a statement from a question or a needed shift in mood. Stop goofing around; or should I tell your mother?

3. When the second clause of a compound sentence is introduced by a conjunctive adverb, a semicolon separates the clauses. I enjoy soccer; however, my favorite sport is baseball.

4. The semicolon separates series and clauses that contain internal punctuation (usually commas): My favorite places to hang out include baseball, football and soccer fields; restaurants and eateries; and Las Vegas.

Keep in mind that in the first three uses, the elements on both sides of the semicolon could stand alone as sentences. Semicolons can only connect independent clauses (unless rule 4 applies). As a little trick, substitute a period where you think the semicolon should go. If both elements are correct as sentences, they can be joined by a semicolon. If either element cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, a semicolon cannot be used to join them and you’re better served with a comma.

Of course, not all writers love the semicolon. In fact, there are some folks who despise it—namely Kurt Vonnegut who once said, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Writer’s Digest wants to go on record as saying we take no stance on the semicolon, for or against. It’s our obligation to stay neutral on these matters. Though we definitely hate the interrobang?!

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0 thoughts on “When to Use a Semicolon

  1. Huicai

    Dear Editor, I discovered your magazine recently and found it an interesting and informative read. Having read your answers on the correct usage of semi-colons and "begging the question", I wish to clarify usage of sentences in daily work life.

    1. When we attach documents in emails, is it acceptable to write "Please find attached file for your reference?". If not, what is the proper way?

    2. I suspect the following sentences which I write to people are grammatically incorrect. Can you advise on the proper way to convey the same meaning without sounding tedious?

    (i) "Below is a list of documents required."

    (ii) "The data is as follows."

    I look forward to your guidance.

    (from Singapore)

  2. Nolan

    Please e-mail this article to every English teacher I have ever had and ask why they couldn’t explain the damn semicolon as succinctly as this?!

    (interrobang added for your benefit)

  3. Rachel Overton

    Oh, so that’s what that thing’s called! I always wondered…they do have their place you know. Especially if you have teenagers in your household. 🙂

  4. Elaine Luddy Klonicki

    Just to be clear, it should be mentioned that the sentence after the semicolon (as in example 1) normally starts with a lowercase letter. So if "The Chicken Dance" is the full name of the dance, your example is correct. If "Chicken Dance" is the full name of the dance, then the sentence should read: Dancing is for the birds; the Chicken Dance is for weddings.