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An easy-to-understand guide to using semicolons

It’s not quite a comma and it’s not quite a period.

And despite its appearance, it functions very differently from its neighbor, the settler.

But for those who take the time to learn the quirks of it, the semicolon is unparalleled punctuation mark in terms of versatility; Used correctly, it can make your prose more professional (albeit slightly pontificating).

Alright, I’ve had enough. But seriously: how do are you using a semicolon (;), anyway? And when should you definitely NOT use one?

Read on to learn the ins and outs of this unique little piece of grammatical nuance, and explore some examples of semicolons.

How to use a semicolon, once and for all

Semicolons can be used in four cases. We’ll go through each of them and provide examples.

Here’s when to use a semicolon:

  1. To bind closely related independent clauses
  2. To separate two independent clauses linked by a transitional sentence or a conjunctive adverb
  3. To separate two independent clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction if these clauses are very long or already punctuated with commas
  4. To separate the elements of a serial list that already contains commas

In the majority of cases, a semicolon is used to connect two independent, closely related clauses.

That is to say, the two statements on either side of the semicolon could be sentences of their own, but the semicolon indicates that they are essentially part of the same idea. The first three semicolon use cases are actually just variations of this method, which treats the semicolon as a kind of punctuation mark in between, between a period and a comma.

In the latter use case, the semicolon is used to separate items in a list because those items have already been interspersed with commas, which could result in a lack of clarity without the use of another sign. punctuation.

To illustrate these use cases, I’m going to design semicolon examples that relate to one of my favorite topics on earth: cheese. Here’s what sentences should look like when you use semicolons correctly.

1. Link closely related independent clauses

Jamie really loves cheese; it may be his favorite food on Earth.

As you can see, these two statements could easily stand on their own with a dot between them. But by using a semicolon, the proximity between the two ideas is reinforced. After all, they’re essentially saying the exact same thing.

2. Link independent clauses separated by a transitional sentence or a conjunctive adverb

Jamie really loves cheese; in fact, it may be his favorite food on Earth.

The transition sentence “in fact” has been added to the second independent clause, but the two statements can still be joined by a semicolon.

3. Link independent clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction for clarity or conciseness

Jamie really likes cheeses of all kinds, including soft berries and firm cheddars; but other cheese lovers sometimes stick to one variety.

The first independent clause in this set already has a comma, which would make using a second comma to separate clauses a little less clearly.

By using a semicolon, the sentence achieves clarity and also gives the reader a brain break – the semicolon provides a firmer stop than a comma, so your reader can grasp the whole idea without getting lost. overwhelm.

4. Separation of items in a serial list

Jamie’s list of favorite cheeses covers a wide variety: Soft, gooey bries; firm and strong cheddars; and all kinds of intermediate options like Goat’s Milk Gouda.

In this sentence, the serial list includes items that already have commas (“soft, gooey Bries” and “firm and strong cheddars”). Thus, a semicolon is used to make the separate list items more distinct.

There is also, however, a colon (:) in this sentence – which brings us to another important point.

Colon vs Semicolon: What’s the Difference?

Many writers confuse the semicolon with its similar-looking, but very different, cousin, the colon.

While the semicolon has a comma at the bottom, the colon has two vertically aligned dots and is most often used to introduce a list. (That’s what he does in the corny example sentence above.)

However, the colon can also be used between independent clauses, which can lead to confusion. But here’s the big difference: when you use a colon before the second independent clause, you have to explain or introduce the first independent clause … just like in this sentence. ?

When do not use a semicolon

A good time not to use a semicolon: when you need a colon instead. (See what I did there? Okay, I’ll stop. Maybe.)

Another common mistake does not have to do with overuse of the semicolon, but underuse. Too often writers who learn how to make changes will use a comma when they actually need the total weight of a semicolon.

For example, if you try to link two independent clauses without when using a conjunction, you need a semicolon. Linking them instead with a comma is a common mistake known as a comma splice, shown below:

INCORRECT (comma splice): The cheese is tasty, it is also rich in calcium.

CORRECT: The cheese is tasty; it is also rich in calcium.

However, it is also possible to use a semicolon instead of a comma to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause. An example:

INCORRECT: Since cheese is delicious and nutritious; you might as well eat it.

CORRECT: Since cheese is delicious and nutritious, you might as well eat it.

The first clause depends on the second, which means that a semicolon provides too much of a break between the two ideas.

Why use a semicolon?

Well, for starters, if you’re a grammar nerd like a lot of us writers who care grammar rules and grammar tools, it’s just fun to add something new to the mix, not to mention the variety you need when working on a longer piece.

Proper use of semicolons can make your work more sophisticated and give you the opportunity to play with new sentence structures and new clause lengths.

But really, if you’re reading this blog post, you probably don’t need a lot of conviction. When it comes to having another tool to master and add to your writing workbox, the real question is: why not? 😉

And yes, the blinking emoji is a good use of the semicolon as well – at least in our book.

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Photo via AnnaStills / Shutterstock

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