Semicolon vs. Period – Which One To Use?

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Teaching my students how to extend their thoughts in their writing is one of the most challenging aspects of education. Not only does it require them to have options about what they are writing about, it also requires proper punctuation so their reader understands those opinions.

Tying together complete sentences to one another with structured ideas, as well as using a semicolon to do so, are the two best ways to create flow in your writing. Let’s take a look at when it is best to use a period and when a semicolon provides a superior alternative.

Period Rules and When to Use Them

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The most commonly used punctuation mark in the English language is a period and signifies the end of a sentence that issues a command, statement, or indirect question.

End marks are absolutely necessary in writing to indicate an end to a complete thought. Without them, your writing is confusing and disjointed, and nobody will take you seriously.

It also can be used to show an omission of letters in a word as an abbreviation. Plus, its use influences the tone of your writing.

Use a Period to End a Sentence

The period is one of three terminal marks used to end a sentence. It is used to end declarative and imperative sentences. Declarative and imperative sentences state or tell the reader something.

For example:

  • Let’s order out for dinner tonight.
  • Order from my favorite restaurant.
  • You know how I prefer my steak to be cooked.

Use a Period to Ask an Indirect Question

Indirect questions are questions said as a statement instead of asked. It omits the question mark and uses a period instead. It implies that the answer is already known and usually indicates a forceful tone.

For example:

  • Are you seriously going to go out tonight after all the trouble you already got into.
  • So, this is how it is going to be.

Use a Period to Indicate an Omission

Periods indicate an omission of letters from words to form abbreviations and initials.

For example:

  • Mister = Mr.
  • Inches – in.
  • Monday = Mon.
  • Road = rd.
  • Bachelor of Science = B.S.

Semicolon Rules and When to Use Them

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Semicolons separate independent clauses (complete sentences) from one another when the second sentence carries forward information related to the first sentence. It also separates items in a list that already contains commas.

Use a Semicolon Between Two Independent Clauses

Semicolons can only separate two independent clauses. You can use them to conjoin sentences already compounded by a comma and coordinating pair, or you can use them to join together two related, stand-alone sentences.

For example:

  • We were disappointed to find out our summer vacation was being cut short; the plans we had made had to be canceled.
  • I decided to book a cabin in the woods to make up for it; we invited some friends along for fun.
  • The approaching weekend excited everyone; however, the forecast was calling for rain.

Use a Semicolon to Separate Items in a List That Contain Commas

When phrases and clauses contain commas in a list, you should use a semicolon to separate them. These are usually nonessential appositives, participial phrases, and adjective clauses.

For example:

  • I tried to get help from Mr. Gilgreen, the principal; Ms. McKinley, the English teacher; and Mrs. Medragon, the English coordinator, but nobody cared that the class had no teacher.
  • Monday was very stressful due to my car, which needed a jump; the weekly lesson, which nobody prepared for; and my colleagues, who wouldn’t read directions.

When to Use a Semicolon vs. Period

When you want your writing to sound sophisticated and you are bringing together related ideas, a semicolon is the punctuation mark for you. Instead of muddying complex-compound sentences over and over with commas and coordinating conjunctions, use the semicolon.

Its use helps create flow and breaks up the overly consistent structure that coordinating conjunctions can create. It also allows you to make lists of items that don’t sound jerky, repetitive, or confusing.

A semicolon does not ever end a sentence, making its use very different from a period. You want to use a semicolon instead of a period when two separate sentences are related to one another. Its use provides the reader with insight to the importance of the ideas presented within the two sentences.

Let’s Review

Periods end sentences and help create abbreviations. They are important and must be used at the end of declarative and some imperative sentences to signify the end of a complete thought.

Semicolons replace commas and coordinating conjunctions and bring together complete sentences of equal importance. Their use helps create flow and sophistication in your writing.