Semicolon: Definition, Use & Examples

Instructor: Debbie Notari

Debbie Notari received her Bachelor’s degree in English and M.S. in Education Literacy and Learning for Grades 6-12. Debbie has over 28 years of teaching experience, teaching a variety of grades for courses like English, Reading, Music, and more.

In this lesson, we will learn how to effectively use a semicolon. Although many students shy away from using semicolons, you will see how easy it can be to incorporate them into your writing.


What Is a Semicolon?

A semicolon is a punctuation mark that looks like a period over a comma. While there are few uses for semicolons, they are really effective tools to incorporate into writing. However, writers sometimes forget to pull them out and use them.

How to Use Semicolons

There are a few simple rules that tell us when to use semicolons. Here is rule number one:

1. You may use a semicolon in place of a conjunction when you are joining two sentences together. However, those two sentences need to be closely related. You wouldn't want to link two random sentences together.

Here is an example: 'Two fierce mice hissed at the cat; the surprised feline screeched and ran!' These two sentences are definitely closely related. However, if you were to write, 'I'm hungry; I hear there are great shows in Las Vegas!' Well, you can clearly see that these two sentences are not closely related. Remember, in this case, you are dropping the conjunction, and simply adding the semicolon. If the sentences shouldn't be joined together with a conjunction, they shouldn't be joined with a semicolon, either.

2. This one is a bit tricky, so hang in there. You may use a semicolon when you are joining two sentences together, as you know, but in the second sentence there can be an introductory word like 'however,' 'for instance,' or 'therefore.' Here is an example: 'Sam liked donuts; however, he knew that they did not like him.'

3. The third rule piggybacks on the last rule. Take a similar situation, where you are joining two sentences with a semicolon, and the second sentence contains an introductory word or phrase. The difference in rule number three is that a list follows the introductory phrase. Here is a sample of this type of sentence: 'The tired campers realized they had forgotten some essential items; namely, sleeping bags, shampoo, bug spray, and water.'

4. Speaking of lists, here is another 'list' rule for the semicolon. If the items in a series contain commas, use the semicolon in between each item for clarification. Otherwise, things may get too confusing. Take a look at this sentence: 'Belinda badly wanted to visit these cities: Seattle, Washington; San Francisco, California; Portland, Oregon; and Miami, Florida.'

5. This last rule is a bit wild, but we will manage it! Let's say you have a sentence with an introductory dependent clause that requires a comma. (Remember that a clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb.) If this is the case, then using a semicolon to separate the two sentences, instead of a comma and conjunction, helps avoid confusion. Here is an example to clear things up: 'Whenever I drive to Portland, I get tired; and tired drivers are a hazard!'

Semicolon Errors

Sometimes we can misuse a semicolon. First, as briefly mentioned before, we would never want to join two unrelated sentences with a semicolon. This is a common sense rule. Just be sure to use a lower-case letter when you start that second related sentence. Also, make sure you have complete sentences on both sides of the semicolon.

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