How to use a semicolon

Last week I got a request for a blog post on proper semicolon usage, and I’m now obliging! Corey Wright, I hereby dedicate this post to you.

Semicolons denote a semi-hard stop. They indicate a greater separation of thought than a comma but less than the separation a comma conveys. Semicolons are used to clarify, separate and add variety to sentences.

Semicolon guidelines

1. Use a semicolon to clarify a series if the elements in the series contain commas.

  • I have lived in Greenville, S.C.; Columbia, S.C.; Newcastle, Australia; and Atlanta, Georgia.

Because each item in the list requires a comma to separate the city, a semicolon is necessary to separate the items themselves.

2. Use a semicolon to link independent clauses when a coordinating conjunction isn’t present.

  • I met a lot of talented writers at DFWcon; they make wonderful crit partners.
  • Grammar and punctuation can be difficult to wrap your head around; I try to make these things easy to understand.

You could technically use a period to make each of these examples two separate sentences. However, if you already have a lot of shorter sentences, you might want to use semicolons to vary your sentence structure.

*But you can’t just stick two unrelated sentences together. For example, this wouldn’t fly:

I met a lot of talented writers at DFWcon; macaroni and cheese is delicious.

3. Use a semicolon before a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase to link two clauses.

  • I enjoy reading all types of books; however, I prefer to read YA books.
  • Corey needed help understanding semicolon usage; therefore, I wrote this post.

*If you have a hard time remembering that commas combine coordinating conjunctions and semicolons combine conjunctive adverbs, here’s an easy reminder that one of my professors once mentioned: Commas are smaller than semicolons and combine coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, so), which are shorter than conjunctive adverbs (however, conversely, therefore, etc.).

Any questions?

Photo: Saucy Salad/flickr

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4 thoughts on “How to use a semicolon

  1. Since you’re taking submissions can you explain the colon then? Dumb it down for us since I don’t get the difference between that and the semicolon yet.

  2. Ben, I’ll totally explain the colon next week. No prob!

    Corey, YOU are a goddess. And OMG I want some macaroni and cheese RIGHT. NOW.

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