Understanding the Semicolon

Do you find the semicolon perplexing, or even scary? If so, this article will demystify this often misunderstood punctuation mark. Used correctly, semicolons can transform your writing from so-so to sophisticated. Examples of correct and incorrect usage are included. If you thought semicolons were just for winking, this article’s for you!

The semicolon is an underused but useful punctuation mark. Many writers do not use the semicolon regularly simply because they do not understand its purpose. Understand the role of the semicolon to improve your writing.

Semicolon Linking Independent Clauses with Closely Related Ideas

The semicolon connects independent clauses, which can stand alone as complete sentences, when they are not joined by a conjunction, such as “and” or “but”. Independent clauses linked by a semicolon should have closely related ideas.

Here are some examples of semicolons linking independent clauses:

  • Peter is a skilled soccer player; he was named most valuable player last season.
  • Some students bring their lunches; others buy cafeteria food.
  • Kim lost her keys; she couldn’t get into her apartment.
  • Spring is just around the corner; the weather was warm and sunny this afternoon.
  • The professor was disappointed in class attendance; he gave extra credit to students who came to class.

Semicolon Linking Independent Clauses Joined by a Conjunctive Adverb

Semicolons also link two independent clauses joined by conjunctive adverbs such as “however”, “otherwise”, or “therefore”.

Here are some examples of semicolons used with conjunctive adverbs:

  • You should see a doctor; otherwise, your cough might last for weeks.
  • Jenny wanted to go to the party; however, she had to study for her exam.
  • Mark had the best interview, therefore, he received the job offer.
  • The snowstorm closed the roads consequently; school was canceled on Monday.
  • The student failed his final exam; moreover, he missed several assignments throughout the semester.

Semicolon Separating Items in a Series

Writers can also use the semicolon to separate a long series of items. If items within the series include commas, a semicolon should be used to separate the items and eliminate confusion.

Here are some examples of semicolons used in lengthy lists:

  • The fabric is available in patterns of red, gray, and black; blue, green, and yellow, and orange, aqua, and white.
  • Your breakfast comes with hash browns, home fries, or French fries; bacon, sausage, or ham; and toast, bagel, or biscuits.
  • Our summer vacation includes visits to Orlando, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina.
  • The project is divided into three sections: brainstorming, reading, and researching; outlining and writing; and revising.
  • Students should divide themselves into three groups: novice, those who have never taken an English course before; intermediate, those who have taken one to three English courses; and advanced, those who have taken four or more English courses.

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