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Using Semicolons (Grammar and Punctuation)

The Quick Answer
Semicolons are used:
  • In lists when the list items contain commas.
  • (e.g., Brian, the officer in charge; Mark, the chef; and Ollie, my dog )

  • To create a smoother transition between sentences, particularly when the second starts with a phrase like however or as a result.
  • (e.g., It was freezing; however, we still enjoyed it. )

  • Before a conjunction that merges two sentences containing commas.
  • (e.g., Yesterday, it was, to our surprise, sunny; but today, as expected, it's dull. )
Semicolons are not used:
  • For introductions.
  • (e.g., I would blame one thing for my divorce; beer. )
    (It should be a colon.)

Rules for Using Semicolons

Semicolons are used for making lists clearer and for controlling the flow of text from one sentence to the next.


Semicolons are becoming more common in writing because grammar checkers have a tendency to recommend them. (This is actually as a workaround for their failings.) If you wanted, you could get away with never using semicolons because there's always an alternative.

Using Semicolons in Lists


Semicolons can be used in lists to outrank any commas which appear in list items. That's less complicated than it sounds. This is a normal list:
  • the master, the servant, and the cook
In a normal list, the list items are separated by commas. However, sometimes the list items themselves contain commas. When this happens, you can use semicolons to separate them. For example:
  • the master, aged 81; the servant, aged 19; and the cook, aged 31
Not all of your list items have to contain commas to justify using semicolons. In fact, only one does. For example:
  • the master, aged 81; the servant; and the cook
You can also use brackets if you need to add more information. For example:
  • the master, aged 81 (82 next week); the servant; and the cook
Lists can get quite complicated. If the information is important, you should consider using bullet points.

Read more about semicolons in lists

Using Semicolons to Extend a Sentence


A semicolon can be used to replace a full stop / period when a smoother transition is required between sentences. For example:
  • It was serious. She broke a toe.
  • It was serious; she broke a toe.
A semicolon is less of a "speed bump" than starting a new sentence.

Be aware that you cannot create a smooth transition between two sentences with a comma. For example:
  • It was serious, she broke a toe.
That's called a run-on error, and it's a very common mistake.

Try to resist the urge to use semicolons for this purpose. Adjacent sentences are usually closely related. They don't all need semicolons between them. Keep this in your back pocket for occasional use. Use it for effect or to showcase your writing skills. If you use too many semicolons, you'll just annoy your readers.

Read more about using semicolons to extend a sentence

Using Semicolons before Transitional Phrases


This next point is very closely related to the last one. Often, when merging two sentences into one, the second sentence will start with a bridging phrase (or a transitional phrase as it's called). Common ones are as a result, consequently, therefore, and however.

These terms will normally start a sentence, but it is possible to create a smoother transition by replacing the full stop / period before this phrase with a semicolon. For example (transitional phrases in bold):
  • She broke her toe. As a result, the game was cancelled.
  • She broke her toe; as a result, the game was cancelled.
  • Vacation used to be a luxury. However, in today's world, it has become a necessity.
  • Vacation used to be a luxury; however, in today's world, it has become a necessity.
Note: You cannot do this with a comma.
  • Vacation used to be a luxury, however, in today's world, it has become a necessity.
That's a run-on error. (There is a comma after a transitional phrase though.)

Read more about semicolons before transitional phrases

Using Semicolons before Conjunctions


It is common to merge two sentences into one using a conjunction (a word like and, or, but). For example:
  • Lee likes cake. He likes pies.
  • Lee likes cake, and he likes pies.
  • (Here, the conjunction and has been used to merge the two sentences into one.)
When this happens, it is normal to use a comma before the conjunction.

Now, when the sentences themselves contain commas, it is possible to outrank those commas by using a semicolon before the conjunction instead of a comma. For example:
  • At the end of the day, Lee likes cake; and he likes, well, actually prefers, pies.
This is quite an outdated practice, but you can use a semicolon for this purpose if you think it'll help your readers.

Read more about semicolons before conjunctions
Beware

Not a Semicolon for an Introduction

Do not use a semicolon for an introduction. That's what a colon (:) is for.


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