Sometimes it seems like everywhere you turn, there’s a new punctuation mark or grammar rule to be aware of as you assemble your next work of literary genius. The semicolon—this weird looking thing: ;—is something that can be a bit confusing and intimidating to new writers.
Never fear, writerly friends! We’ll break down exactly what a semicolon is, how it compares to other punctuation marks, and how to use it in your own writing with some helpful examples.
What is a semicolon?
A semicolon is a punctuation mark that looks like a period suspended over a comma. It indicates a pause that’s more substantial than a comma, but not as emphatic as a period. Semicolons are useful when you want to complete a thought, but want the reader to know that it’s connected to the next thought in some way.
When to use a semicolon
A semicolon is used to indicate a pause in a sentence between two or more connected concepts. You can use a semicolon in place of a coordinating conjunction to separate two closely related independent clauses, to separate longer items in a narrative list, or to lead into a new sentence that begins with a transitional phrase.
Let’s look at each of these uses a little bit closer.
Use a semicolon to connect two related ideas
The main purpose of a semicolon is to link independent clauses together without the need for a pesky coordinating conjunction like and, but, so, and so forth.
If you need a grammar refresh, independent clauses are complete sentences that don’t need anything added to them to make sense. If your two independent clauses aren’t closely related, you should separate them with a period. If the ideas are connected, you can use a semicolon.
Don’t forget your jacket. It’s supposed to rain later.
Don’t forget your jacket; it’s supposed to rain later.
Because these two sentences are connected, you can join them together with a semicolon. Note how after the semicolon, the second independent clause begins with a lowercase letter instead of a capital. You’ll only capitalize the word after a semicolon if its a proper noun.
Use a semicolon in list paragraphs
When you’re listing things in a prose narrative (rather than in bullet points, like a shopping list), you’ll usually separate items in a list with commas. For example, “My favorite activities are painting, beachcombing, and reading Agatha Christie.” Sometimes, however, your list items will have commas in them already. This can get pretty confusing on the page. For example:
Her past credits include The Dead Man, for which she was nominated for a Reader’s Choice award, Lollipop Sundays, which was shortlisted for the Emerging 40-Under-40 award, and My Grandma’s Old Ballet Shoes, which has been optioned for film and TV.
There’s a lot of comma action going on in that sentence. To keep it from feeling erratic and disjointed, you can separate the list items with semicolons instead:
Her past credits include The Dead Man, for which she was nominated for a Reader’s Choice award; Lollipop Sundays, which was shortlisted for the emerging 40-Under-40 award; and My Grandma’s Old Ballet Shoes, which has been optioned for film and TV.
Use a semicolon before transitional phrases
You can use a semicolon to introduce a clause that starts with transitional expressions or conjunctive adverbs. These are words or phrases that suggest a connection between the two ideas.
Transitional phrases are things like:
As a result
Because of that
A conjunctive adverb is similar, but it’s only one word. This might be something like:
You can use a semicolon after your first independent clause right before your joining phrase, like this:
Sarah is a daredevil; by contrast, her sister is afraid to even leave the house.
Sarah’s sister is afraid of everything; nevertheless, she was able to be brave when it mattered most.
Semicolons vs. other punctuation
Semicolons have a lot in common with other punctuation marks like colons, commas, and em-dashes. In some cases, they look a little bit similar; in others, they perform similar grammatical functions.
Here are the key differences you need to know between using semicolons and using other punctuation marks in grammar.
Semicolons vs. colons
While a semicolon looks like a hanging period atop a comma, a colon looks like a hanging period atop another period—two dots in a vertical row.
The biggest difference between a semicolon and a colon is that a colon implies a more direct relationship between two things. While a semicolon brings two separate sentences together, a colon expands on the first sentence’s idea. This might be through a modifying detail or a list.
There are three kinds of people in this world: those who can count, and those who can’t.
In this example, the second half of the sentence introduces new information that expands upon the first half. While the first half is an independent clause that could finish with a period and act as its own sentence, the colon tells the reader that more important information is coming.
(We also used a colon after “For example” to show you that we were about to give you more details!)
Semicolons vs. commas
Since a semicolon is just a comma with an extra dot hanging out on top, does that mean they can be used in the same way? Not quite. If you separate two independent clauses with a comma, you get what’s known as a comma splice. A comma splice is grammatically incorrect, looks funky on the page, and distracts your reader from your story.
For example, this is a comma splice:
I was exhausted when I got home, I slept for ten hours straight.
You could fix this either by substituting a semicolon, or by changing the words around a little bit so you have a dependent clause on one side and an independent clause on the other:
I was exhausted when I got home; I slept for ten hours straight.
After I got home, I was so exhausted I slept for ten hours straight.
A comma is used to link an independent clause with a dependent clause, or a complete sentence with an incomplete sentence. A semicolon is only used to separate two complete sentences.
Semicolons vs. em-dashes
Em-dashes are the Swiss army knives of grammar. You can use them to separate two ideas, like you would with a semicolon, or to interject a detail into a larger sentence.
Em-dashes are pretty great; you can use them in a lot of different ways.
Em-dashes are pretty great—you can use them in a lot of different ways.
Both are grammatically correct!
You can also use em-dashes to isolate part of a sentence, like this:
We were sitting by the lake—this was before we broke up, obviously—and this enormous otter came right up to us!
In general, it’s good practice to alternate between semicolons and em-dashes when separating two related independent clauses, so that neither one becomes distracting and overused.
(You can’t use an em-dash to make a winking emoticon, though. If you do that you’ll just look unimpressed.)
Use semicolons to level up your sentence structure
Semicolons may look a little scary, but they’re a useful and versatile grammar device. With these tips, you’ll never have to cower in fear from the dreaded semicolon again; you may even find this the start of a beautiful partnership!