When Should I Use a Semicolon?

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A semicolon is an odd punctuation mark–a period on top of a comma looks odd. Compare it to a colon–one comma stacked on top of another appears orderly and balanced. So can the semicolon be ignored? When should you use it?

You should use a semicolon when writing in semi-formal or formal settings. Otherwise, you are using a formal punctuation mark, and the semicolon calls attention to itself in informal writing.

When Should I Use a Semicolon?

When should I Use a Semicolon
Photo by Connor Pope on Unsplash

The use of a semi-colon should be reserved for formal or semi-formal writing:

  • White papers
  • Professional journals
  • Academic writing

In settings such as those, readers expect thorough, nuanced writing to express complex ideas.  Readers of a white paper on bitcoin marketing trends want more than a series of bullet points about the possible growth areas; instead, these readers expect a sophisticated analysis that charts trends, identifies potential risks, and makes suggestions about how to move forward.

However, the average person planning on buying a new laptop wants to know about performance, cost, and specs like weight and battery life.  And if they want a comparison between several models, a list or table is more helpful.

Audience and Purpose

Here’s the previous sentence again:

The average person planning on buying a new laptop, however, wants to know about performance, cost, and specs like weight and battery life; in addition, if they want a comparison between several models, a list or table is more helpful.

So what’s the difference?  In the above sentence everything is combined in one sentence, connecting them with a semi-colon and conjunctive adverb.   The resulting sentence seems too dense for this article.

And it doesn’t have the informative but not formal tone for an informative article.

The audience for a product review is interested in the product, not sophisticated sentences. The tone needs to be casual.

Semicolon Rules

The rules for semi-colons are straightforward if you know, intuitively or otherwise, these terms (or the concepts):

  • Independent clause
  • Conjunctive adverbs
  • Items of a series

Let’s go through each one.

Independent Clause

An independent clause is a sentence. 

So why not simply call it a sentence?  You could, but then what would you call a group of words that are not a sentence?  A non-sentence?  And how would you distinguish between a group of words that have a subject and verb but are not a sentence, and a group of words that do not have both subject and verb?

So the term “independent clause” is used to distinguish it from a dependent clause and phrase.

But for our purposes, we can say an independent clause is a sentence–a group of words that can stand alone.

Conjunctive Adverbs

These are a specialized class of adverbs whose purpose is to connect ideas.  However, like many words or phrases, they can take on several roles:

  • For example, a conjunctive adverb can serve as a transition (as for example just did).
  • A conjunctive adverb can allow us to connect two independent clauses together; for example, in this sentence the conjunctive adverb for example is both a transition and conjunction.
  • And then a conjunctive adverb can, for example, change the rhythm of a sentence.

Items of a Series

When you connect three or more similar ideas, you have what is known as items of a series.  Most of us remember this rule from school:  For the class party, we want cookies, soda, and ice cream.

When to Use Semicolons

The two primary rules for semicolons:

 Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses (sentences). 

The sentences can be joined without a conjunction; this is an example. 

You can also connect them with a conjunctive adverb; therefore, I am linking these two sentences with a conjunctive adverb.

Use a semicolon to separate items of a series when the items have commas in them:

For the class party we want cookies, cake, and pizza; soda, juice, and chocolate milk; and ice cream.

Sounds like a tasty class party.  Recess anyone?

Digging Deeper–The History of Semicolons

There is enough history to this punctuation mark that Cecelia Watson penned a delightful book, Semicolon.  It traces the punctuation mark’s usage to 1494, an attempt by the publisher of De Aetna to invent a mark that would create a longer pause than a comma but not as long as a colon.

If you are exploring this fascinating punctuation mark further, start with her article in Publisher’s Weekly. The post What is a Conjunctive Adverb explores a class of adverbs that has many uses.

You can also read a post that details how semicolon rules have changed. Interested in who makes grammar rules? We have a post on that.

And if you haven’t heard about semicolons tattoos, check them out.

By the way, if you’re wondering if starting a sentence with and is legit, I answer that in this post.

Bottom Line–When to Use a Semicolon

You can use semicolons in formal and semi-formal writing. But in informal writing use them sparingly.

Leave questions or comments below. 

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