Out of all the different punctuation marks, semicolons are typically one of the trickiest to master. Semicolons (;) are a mix between a comma and a colon, hence the name. For the most part, semicolons are not used too often in fiction, but for the nonfiction writer, semicolons can be a great asset. Here is all you need to know about semicolons, including the main places writers should use them.
Semicolons and Related Sentences
The first and main use of semicolons is to connect two related independent clauses. Independent clauses contain a subject and verb, as well as have a complete thought, and can therefore stand alone. (Correct example: The cat is brown. Incorrect example: If I go to the store.) Typically, a writer will use a semicolon when there are two independent clauses and the writer wants to indicate relation between them.
I love shoes; high heels are my favorite.
The recent turmoil in the Middle East has significantly impacted global international relations; the United States has strengthened its ties with established allies as well as made new alliances.
Egypt has many great tourist spots to see; therefore, I plan on traveling there soon.
She loves to visit zoos and see the different wild animals; in particular, she loves the elephants.
These above examples all use semicolons correctly. Both of the connected sentences can stand by themselves if desired, which fulfills the first requirement. Also, the two sentences in each example are clearly related, so it makes sense to connect them with a semicolon.
Much of the decision to use a semicolon is up to individual interpretation. One writer may see two sentences as related whereas another writer may not see the connection strong enough to use a semicolon. This is another way that writers can personalize their own writing.
Semicolons and Lists
Semicolons can also be used in lists, usually to lessen confusion when reading them. Typically, this is when a list uses additional commas, which can confuse the meaning. Here’s an example of a sentence like that:
I participated in many activities today: swimming, since it was so warm outside, boating, which was my favorite part of the day, as well as what we spent the most time on, and running, since I’m trying to get in shape.
Okay, so you probably notice that that sentence is all over the place and hard to read. Using semicolons to separate each list item would help fix this as seen in the correct version below.
I participated in many activities today: swimming, since it was so warm outside; boating, which was my favorite part of the day, as well as what we spent the most time on; and running, since I’m trying to get in shape.
Now, the sentence is coherent, all thanks to a few semicolons. This is an awesome tool for writers to use when including lists like these. Here are some more examples of how semicolons can be used in lists:
I went to the store and purchased the following items: pasta, which I plan on making tomorrow for dinner; kiwi, as this is my daughter’s favorite food; and chocolate cake, so I can celebrate my birthday coming up.
Italy has many great attractions for tourists: Italian food, especially pasta, is rich and delicious; famous religious sites, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Mark’s Basilica, the Florence Cathedral, and the Pantheon; and magnificent landmarks, like the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain.
Research offers three primary causes for the economic inequality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: first, the dependency on natural resources; second, a lack of institutions; and third, the high level of corruption.
These examples all demonstrate the correct way to use semicolons in lists. Notice that all the items in the list have more to them than a single word or phrase, which is why it can be confusing to only use commas to separate them. Semicolons in lists like this are also often referred to as super commas as they serve the same function as commas but in an exaggerated manner. So, yes, semicolons are basically the superheroes of punctuation!
Places You Need Semicolons
There are two common places that people try to use commas instead of semicolons, which makes the sentence grammatically incorrect.
Incorrect example: I read several books today, it was a relaxing way to spend the day.
Correct example: I read several books today; it was a relaxing way to spend the day.
In the above incorrect example, two independent clauses are combined with only a comma which is called a comma splice. A comma by itself cannot connect two independent clauses. So, this is a great place to use a semicolon instead if you feel that the two sentences are related enough.
Incorrect example: I love Thanksgiving, however, family gatherings can be a bit crowded.
Correct example: I love Thanksgiving; however, family gatherings can be a bit crowded.
This second example is similar to the first. The incorrect example also tries to connect two independent clauses with just a comma. The inclusion of the word “however” in this example is what really trips people up. “However” is an example of a conjunctive adverb which is a part of speech that transitions two independent clauses. Other examples of conjunctive adverbs include words like also, consequently, furthermore, therefore, then, thus, and many other common transition words. Although conjunctive adverbs transition two independent clauses, a comma should still not be used to separate the two independent clauses. Instead, as seen in the correct example, a semicolon should be used before the conjunctive adverb.
Now that you’re a semicolon pro why not master colons?