When to Use a Semicolon

Wondering proper semicolon usage? The semicolon (;) is shrouded in mystery for many writers, but learning when to use one is actually quite simple. Unlike many other punctuation marks, the rules for semicolon use are fairly straightforward. 

Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses.
In cases where two complete thoughts are related, a writer may choose to combine then into one complex sentence, rather than leave them as two separate sentences.

For example, rather than writing, "Some of the students prefer vanilla. The other students prefer chocolate," you may choose to write, "Some of the students prefer vanilla; the other students prefer chocolate."

Here are some other examples of semicolons used in this way:

  • If it's nice out, we'll go to the beach; if it rains, we'll go to the museum.
  • Moby Dick is her favorite book; she also loves The Catcher in the Rye.

Use a semicolon when a second clause in a sentence expands upon the first clause.
In cases where you wish to elaborate a bit on the first clause in a complex sentence, a semicolon can help.

  • My favorite time of day is dawn; I love to watch the sun rise.
  • Arthur loves antiques; he goes to the antique market every Sunday.
  • Mrs. Miller is my teacher; she is very intelligent.

Use semicolons in lists of items when commas are already present.
In order to avoid confusing the reader in very longs lists of items, writers can use semicolons to make things clear. This is particularly useful when the list of items contains commas already.

  • Marjorie visited Paris, France; London, England; Monterey California, and Albany, New York.
  • Her purse contains one tube of lip gloss, strawberry flavored; one pen; a candy bar, half-eaten; the book she's been reading; her wallet and her keys.

When used properly, semicolons can be quite useful in helping you to write complex sentences that will really enhance your writing.

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