Semicolons: 4 Reasons to Use Them

clauses to be separated

to provide variation to the mix to emphasize interconnectedness

To divide items in a long list

Semicolons Clauses that are distinct

Things are separated by semicolons. They are most usually used to separate two main clauses that are closely connected but might stand alone as sentences if needed.

Here’s an illustration:

I have a big test tomorrow; I can’t go out tonight.

If you put a period between the two clauses in the sentence instead of a semicolon, they might be sentences on their own:

I have a big test tomorrow. I can’t go out tonight.

Semicolons add variety to sentences.

If you wanted to add diversity to your sentence structure, you could use a semicolon instead of a period. For example, if you believed you had too many short, choppy phrases in a succession, you could use a semicolon.

Semicolons draw attention to the fact that two things are related.

Another reason to use a semicolon is to emphasize how closely your two clauses are related. The semicolon in our sample phrase emphasizes the fact that you are unable to go out tonight due to a major examination scheduled for tomorrow. You wouldn’t say, “English is my fifth-period class; I won’t be able to go out tonight,” because the two primary components are unrelated.

Coordinating Conjunctions and Semicolons

A comma should always be used to unite two major clauses, not a semicolon plus coordinating conjunction like “and,” “so,” or “but.” You’d write it like this if you wanted to use coordinating conjunction:

I have a big test tomorrow, so I can’t go out tonight.

However, there are a few circumstances where using a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction is acceptable.

With a Coordinating Conjunction, Semicolons Can Join Complex Clauses

To begin, if you have a long sentence with numerous independent clauses and some of those clauses have internal punctuation such as a comma, you can use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction to clarify the separation between clauses. Here’s an illustration:

If you want me to go out tonight, you need to help me with my homework first; and if you say no, I’ll know that you don’t care about going out.

Because each half of that long sentence comprises a conditional clause that requires a comma, a semicolon before the “and” that separates the two sections is acceptable. You could split them into two sentences, but you don’t have to; in fact, because they’re so closely related, having them divided by a semicolon makes a lot of sense. In this situation, the “and” after the semicolon is optional, but I believe it improves the sentence’s flow.

In a long list of items, semicolons can be used to separate them.

When you have an excess of commas, the second time you should use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction is to separate list components that contain commas.

As an illustration, consider the following:

This week’s winners are Joe from Reno, Nevada; Diane from Phoenix, Arizona; and Matt from Irvine, California.

Coordinating Conjunctions and Semicolons

A comma should always be used to unite two major clauses, not a semicolon plus coordinating conjunction like “and,” “so,” or “but.” You’d write it like this if you wanted to use coordinating conjunction:

I have a big test tomorrow, so I can’t go out tonight.

However, there are a few circumstances where using a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction is acceptable.

With a Coordinating Conjunction, Semicolons Can Join Complex Clauses

To begin, if you have a long sentence with numerous independent clauses and some of those clauses have internal punctuation such as a comma, you can use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction to clarify the separation between clauses. Here’s an illustration:

If you want me to go out tonight, you need to help me with my homework first; and if you say no, I’ll know that you don’t care about going out.

Because each half of that long sentence comprises a conditional clause that requires a comma, a semicolon before the “and” that separates the two sections is acceptable. You could split them into two sentences, but you don’t have to; in fact, because they’re so closely related, having them divided by a semicolon makes a lot of sense. In this situation, the “and” after the semicolon is optional, but I believe it improves the sentence’s flow.

In a long list of items, semicolons can be used to separate them.

When you have an excess of commas, the second time you should use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction is to separate list components that contain commas.

As an illustration, consider the following:

This week’s winners are Joe from Reno, Nevada; Diane from Phoenix, Arizona; and Matt from Irvine, California.

You must use a semicolon to separate the items itself since each item in the list requires a comma to separate the city from the state.

It’s worth noting that you can use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction like “and” in both cases because commas are already in use for something else, and inserting another comma could confuse readers.

Conjunctive Adverbs and Transitional Phrases with Semicolons

Finally, a semicolon is used to connect two major clauses when a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase is used.

Words like “although,” “hence,” and “indeed” are examples of conjunctive adverbs. Here’s an example of how semicolons can be used with them:

I have a big test tomorrow; therefore, I can’t go out tonight.

“For instance” or “in other terms” are examples of transitional phrases. A transitional phrase could be used in the following sentence:

I have a big test tomorrow; as a result, I can’t go out tonight.

Conjunctive Adverbs vs. Coordinating Conjunctions

People can become annoyed when they have to remember to use commas with coordinating conjunctions and semicolons with conjunctive adverbs. If you’re having trouble remembering the difference between the two, keep in mind that commas are smaller than semicolons and go with coordinating conjunctions, which are almost often two- or three-letter words—small words, little punctuation marks.

Semicolons are larger and associated with conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases that are nearly usually more than three letters long—greater words, bigger punctuation.