How and When to Properly Use a Semicolon [;] – With Examples

If you avoid using a semicolon when writing because you aren’t sure of its use, you aren’t alone. Most people are comfortable with a comma and stick safely with it, but the semicolon is a strong punctuation mark worth learning more about. 

Since a semicolon helps highlight the relationship between two clauses, it can replace both a comma or period, as well as a conjunction when appropriately used. It signals a reader to pause, but not with the finality of a period. Take a look at the rules of semicolon use and semicolon examples to begin using them in your own writing. 

How to Use a Semicolon

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Semicolons [;] are used to separate closely related independent clauses. It can also be used to separate independent clauses or items in a series that already contain a number of commas. 

Semicolon Rules with Examples

Semicolons are most often used between two independent clauses. If you are unsure whether to use a comma or a semicolon, these rules should help clarify that point. 

Rule #1

Use a semicolon to replace a comma and coordinating conjunction between two (or more) related independent clauses. Conjunctions include and, but, for, nor, so, and yet. 

Do not use a semicolon to join two unrelated clauses, however. Usually, the second phrase clarifies the first or provides additional information. 

For example, the sentence:

  • I love going on vacation, and the countdown to my next trip has begun. 

Becomes:

  • I love going on vacation; the countdown to my next trip has begun. 

Rule #2

Use a semicolon to replace a period between two closely related independent clauses. 

For example, the sentence:

  • I cannot wait until we leave for our trip to Florida. We are driving in order to see all the sights.

Becomes:

  • I cannot wait until we leave for our trip to Florida; we are driving in order to see all the sights.

Rule #3

Use a semicolon to join independent clauses separated by a conjunctive adverb or a transitional expression. Conjunctive adverbs are adverbs that act as a conjunction to join independent clauses. These include also, accordingly, besides, however, furthermore, consequently, instead, otherwise, etc.

Transitional expressions can also connect independent clauses using expressions such as, at this time, as a result, first, for instance, in fact, on the other hand, second, and that is. 

Always be sure that an independent clause lies on either side of the semicolon for proper use; otherwise, use a comma (see what I did there?).

For example:

  • The sunset was spectacularly beautiful on the cloudless horizon; however, we planned on rain the following morning despite the clear skies. 
  • She really could be challenging to get along with for group work; on the other hand, her stubbornness got everyone to pull their full weight. 

Rule #4

Use semicolons to help avoid confusion if an independent clause already contains a comma. If two independent clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction, but one or both of the clauses already contains a comma, a semicolon can be placed before the conjunction in place of another comma to avoid confusion. 

For example:

  • We planned on tubing, hiking, and skiing at our favorite hill last winter; but the winter storms were so bad, the roads up to the hill were closed half the season. 

Rule #5

Use a semicolon between items in a series if the items also contain commas. The items often contain either nonessential appositives, participial phrases, or adjective clauses. See examples of each, in order, below:

  • I emailed thank you letters to Ms. Herrera, the math teacher; Mr. Dodson; the science teacher; and Ms. White, the social studies teacher. 
  • I got no sleep last night due to my neighbor, playing loud music; my dog, howling along with it; and the full moon, shining in my window. 
  • The used bike I bought has tires with aggressive treads, which are brand new; a leather seat, which was custom fit; and cushioned handlebars, which help with my arthritic grip. 

Commonly Asked Questions

There are a few commonly asked questions surrounding semicolon use that may still need clarifying. Check out these answers to help ensure you use a semicolon correctly. 

Do You Capitalize After a Semicolon?

In short, no. Never capitalize after a semicolon since the clause following its use has been conjoined with the previous clause to create a complete sentence. 

Does a Semicolon Mean and or or?

Even though a semicolon technically replaces a coordinating conjunction, that does not mean it means the word it has replaced.

What’s the Difference Between a Colon and a Semicolon?

Whereas a semicolon works to conjoin two independent clauses and help avoid confusion when too many commas are present in a sentence, a colon acts as an introductory device to help the reader look ahead to additional information. A colon also does not require the use of independent clauses for proper use and can be used with single words where appropriate. 

When to Use a Semicolon in Writing – Sentence Examples

Those drinking more than six cups of coffee a day were at 40 percent lower risk for diabetes than nondrinkers; the figure for those who drank less than a cup per day was just 4 percent. [New York Times]

Without the document of 1787, there would have been no United States; with it, the conflict over slavery as the nation expanded became inevitable . . . [You Don’t Say]

Ms. Milgram, citing her oversight responsibilities for New Jersey nonprofits, filed suit on Sept. 17, naming Dr. Raveché; Lawrence T. Babbio Jr., the chairman of the institute’s board and a former Verizon president; and the Stevens trustees as defendants. [New York Times]

Yes, he had legislative victories; but he didn’t show that Congress can make hard choices and act responsibly, because he never asked it to. [New York Times]

Let’s Review

Semicolons are powerful punctuation marks used to bring together two independent clauses that are related to one another. Its use helps highlight that there is additional information to be had about the sentence subject. 

You can also use it to help clarify sentences that already have commas, and the addition of yet another would confuse the reader.

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