How to Use a Semi-Colon

Posted October 3, 2013 by Amanda Shofner in Writing / 8 Comments


How to use a semi-colon is a problem that baffles many people—whether they realize it or not.

But no more.

Let’s put an end to semi-colon confusion. Those poor, misunderstood semi-colons. And those poor, misunderstood editors who have to fix all fifty semi-colon mistakes in a single manuscript.

Ahem. That may be an exaggeration. A little one.

There are two reasons you’d want to use a semi-colon: to separate two independent clauses and to separate complex list items.

How to use a semi-colon #1: two independent clauses

Rather than get into the technical aspects of what independent clauses are—because I’m not sure anyone but the grammar nerds care—I’m going to keep it simple. Independent clauses are thoughts and ideas that are complete on their own.

That means if you walked into a room and yelled, “I LOVE PIZZA!” everyone would understand what you meant without additional information. They might wonder why you’re shouting your love of pizza at them, but that’s not the point.

The point is if you walked into a room and yelled, “BECAUSE I LOVE PIZZA!” you’d leave people wondering what you’re talking about. “Because I love pizza, why?” they’d ask. “What is going on? And why do I suddenly want pizza?”

“Because I love pizza” isn’t a complete thought; it’s not an independent clause. See what I did there? Two complete thoughts connected by a semi-colon.

Here’s the easiest way to check to see if you have two independent clauses: put a period where the semi-colon is. Does each sentence make complete grammatical sense on its own? If yes, congrats! You’ve used the semi-colon correctly. If each sentence doesn’t make sense, you need something else. (And that’s another story for another time.)

How to use a semi-colon #2: complex list items

Important note here: semi-colons do not signal the start of a list—that’s what colons are for. Semi-colons separate list items that already contain commas. And if you try to separate a list item that has commas with another comma, it gets really comma confusing. Allow me to demonstrate how to separate complex list items.

I saw those three girls already today: the tall, leggy brunette with red pants; the blonde who has a red, blue, and white striped shirt; and the lanky, freckled, and fiery redhead.

The simple version of the list would go something like this: the brunette, the blonde, and the redhead.

 Have your say on semi-colons. Do you use them? Love or hate them?

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8 responses to “How to Use a Semi-Colon

  1. I am not sure if I love or hate semi-colons, but I love this straightforward explanation and plan to start using them more.

    What I truly love is the em dash—would love to get your explanation of the proper use of those some day! (Hmm…I wonder if I used it correctly here…)

    Thank you.

    • Dena,

      Since I’ve referenced Strunk and White once already, I might as well let you know what they say about the dash . . .

      “Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.

      “A dash is a mark of separation stronger than the comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”

  2. Great stuff!

    I love semi-colons! And, in light of that love, I have two notes on how I use (and don’t use) semi-colons in my writing–I’ve adapted both notes from Strunk and White:

    1) I use semi-colons when my second independent clause is preceded by an adverb . . .

    “I love grammar; however, I loathe spelling.”

    2) I avoid semi-colons (and use commas) when two independent clauses are short . . .

    “Life is good, living is great.”

    • But without a conjunction, #2 is a comma splice. I’m not sure what Strunk and White say, but even if a comma splice would be acceptable, the comma doesn’t quite do it for me. It doesn’t give me enough context.

      Life is good, so living is great.
      Life is good, and living is great.
      Life is good, but living is great.

      All have slightly different meanings. If I were to avoid using a conjunction, I’d separate the two clauses into sentences, since the period carries more strength than a comma.

      • Amanda,

        Yeah, that’s just my bad example. They say, “A comma is preferable when the clauses are very short and alike in form, or when the tone of the sentence is easy and conversational.”

        The (quite better) examples they give are:

        “Man proposes, God disposes.”
        “I hardly knew him, he was so changed.”
        “Here today, gone tomorrow.”

        Forgive my horrible example. I am inclined to agree that, given my example, a period would be better.

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