What is a Semicolon? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

You are going to love using the semicolon! This powerful punctuation mark allows you to join together two sentences that are related to each other, and this results in a stronger, more interesting sentence.

Getting to Know the Semicolon

The semicolon has three main uses that will help you as you learn to write powerful and exciting essays. Sometimes we think of it as the super comma because it tells the reader to make more of a stop when reading.

The Semicolon

First Use

A semicolon is used is to join together two sentences that are related.

For example:

  • She ran quickly down the street; the yapping dog was right on her heels.

In this example we see that the first half of the sentence, 'She ran quickly down the street,' is a complete thought. It could be a sentence on its own.

If we look at the second half of the sentence, 'the yapping dog was right on her heels,' we know it too could be a stand alone sentence.

When we put the two sentences together, they are joined by the semicolon, which tells us that they are directly related. So we can join the girl running and the dog yapping right on her heels with a semicolon. You have to use two independent clauses, or complete thoughts. Your second thought can't be dependent on the first. In that case, you'll need to use a comma or a colon.

Ok, so that is one example to get you started; let's try another (notice the semicolon).

  • He loves to drive his car with the top down; it makes him feel free and alive.

In this example there are, once again, two parts to the sentence that are connected.

  • He loves to drive his car with the top down
  • It makes him feel free and alive

It is the fact that they are related that prompts us to join them together with a semicolon. Only related sentences can be joined this way--you can't use a semicolon if they have nothing to do with one another.

Second Use

A semicolon can also join forces with a transition, usually a conjunctive adverb, to link two sentences that go together.

Take a look at this:

  • The yapping dog was right on her heels; however, she made it in the house before it caught her.

In this example, we can see that these are each complete thoughts, but we have used the conjunctive adverb however to join them together. When we join the sentences with a conjunctive adverb we put a semicolon before the conjunctive adverb and a comma after.

  • The yapping dog was right on her heels--this can stand on its own as a sentence.
  • She made it to the house before it caught her--this can also stand alone.
  • We joined them together with however which shows their connection.

Let's look at one more just to make sure you have it.

  • He loves to drive his car with the top down; however, it can be difficult when it starts to rain.

Here, just like in the previous example, we used however to join the two complete thoughts.

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