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Don’t Fear the Semicolon—It’s a Useful Writing Tool

March 9, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 10, 2011

The semicolon has gotten a bad rap, but I’m not sure why. It’s a perfectly acceptable punctuation mark with specific uses. Once you know when and where to use it, you’ll also know where it doesn’t fit.

The semicolon looks like this ;

Semicolons are found between words in a sentence; the semicolon is not a terminal punctuation mark found at the end of a sentence. It immediately follows the letter before it, with no space in between. There is a space after the semicolon, before the beginning of the word that follows.

What can you do with a semicolon? Use it to connect elements in a sentence and to separate elements in a sentence.

Connect independent clauses

Independent clauses are groups of words that can stand alone as sentences. They have a subject and a predicate.

The subject is the noun or the noun phrase—it’s the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something.

The predicate is the part of the sentence that describes the subject or shows what action the subject is performing. It includes verbs and objects or phrases related to the verb.

~  Two sentences can be separated by a period.

Beauregard fell into a well. Beauregard’s momma was not happy.

Hope was in short supply in my world. Anna had made sure of that.

We’d wanted watermelon for breakfast. Now we wanted chocolate.

~  If sentences have a strong connection or you want to emphasize the relationship between them or the second completes the thought stated by the first, consider using a semicolon to join them. Also, consider joining sentences that state cause and then effect.

Beauregard fell into a well; Beauregard’s momma was not happy.

Hope was in short supply in my world; Anna had made sure of that.

We’d wanted watermelon for breakfast; now we wanted chocolate.

~  You can also join sentences with a comma and a coordinating conjunction.

Beauregard fell into a well, but his momma was not happy.

We’d wanted watermelon for breakfast, and now we wanted chocolate.

Don’t use a semicolon to join independent clauses that use a coordinating conjunction (the fanboys—for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Use the comma.

Exception. If one independent clause joined to another with a coordinating conjunction has internal commas, you can separate the clauses with a semicolon for clarity, so the reader knows where each independent clause begins and ends. 

Kelly hoped for peace, joy, and love; she feared she’d get chaos, heartbreak, and oppression; but what she actually got was a pat on the back, a bottle of Prozac, and one “I told you so.”

Not impossible to understand without the semicolon, but perhaps confusing. Of course, you can always rewrite a confusing sentence.

Kelly hoped for peace, joy, and love, yet she feared she’d get chaos, heartbreak, and oppression. What she actually got was a pat on the back, a bottle of Prozac, and one “I told you so.”

~  Some sentences don’t have a relationship sufficient for joining by semicolon.

Beauregard fell into a well. I wanted to read the newspaper.

There’s no logical connection between these two sentences, no reason to join them, so a semicolon wouldn’t be appropriate. However what if we had  . . .

Beauregard fell into a well. I wanted to join him.

These sentences do have a logical connection, and they could be joined by a semicolon.

Beauregard fell into a well; I wanted to join him.

~  Use a semicolon if you join independent clauses with conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases rather than with coordinating conjunctions. (Or simply write them as independent sentences separated by a period.)

Conjunctive adverbs show relationship—cause and effect, contrast, comparison. Conjunctive adverbs include besides, however, thus, otherwise, nevertheless.

Transitional phrases include for example, for instance, in other words, on the other hand, after all.

There are many conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases. My purpose in this article is not to name them all or to list their uses, but to point out that when you join independent clauses with coordinating conjunctions, use a comma. When you use something else—such as conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases—to join the independent clauses, use a semicolon.

Alfred and Winston stood their ground; however, Alfred’s knees were shaking and Winston’s face had lost all color.

Time passes slowly when grief has a tight grip on the heart; nevertheless, it does pass.

______________________________

Separate elements that are subdivided by commas

Use a semicolon to separate elements of a sentence whose internal parts are separated by commas. This keeps each element as a group while separating the parts within elements. Even if only one element has parts separated by a comma, use a semicolon to separate each group. (You are more likely to find this use of the semicolon in non-fiction than to use it in fiction although it is quite valid for use in fiction.)

Think of using this construction to separate a series from another series or to separate lists within sentences.

I’d played basketball, football, and soccer as a freshman; basketball, lacrosse, and hockey as a sophomore; and football as a junior.

The talented Mr. Jonas wrote books on English and French grammar, poetry, and literary criticism; studied anatomy, human evolution, philosophy, and astronomy; and composed sonatas.

Without the use of semicolons, the reader might be confused and wonder what discipline studied anatomy was and conclude that Mr. Jonas wrote books about it as well as about human evolution, philosophy, and astronomy. The reader might also conclude that Mr. Jonas wrote books about composed sonatas.

The talented Mr. Jonas wrote books on English and French grammar, poetry, and literary criticism, studied anatomy, human evolution, philosophy, and astronomy, and composed sonatas.

______________________________

When not to use a semicolon

Don’t use the semicolon to separate items within a list (unless commas are used within an element of the list and the use of commas to separate the items of the list would be confusing*).

The animal ate the apples; the bananas; and even the grapes. incorrect

The animal ate the apples, the bananas, and even the grapes. correct

My hopes were crushed; destroyed by rejection; stomped on by indifference. incorrect

My hopes were crushed, destroyed by rejection, stomped on by indifference. correct

*Eliott stood on the steps, hoping for three outcomes: evidence of his innocence; immediate release, along with the return of all his property; and an apology from Esther, even though he knew she’d never utter the words I’m sorry to him. correct

Don’t use the semicolon to separate an independent clause and a dependent clause (as if they were both independent clauses).

Because the house was so old; we wouldn’t consider buying it. incorrect

Because the house was so old, we wouldn’t consider buying it. correct

We wouldn’t consider buying the house; because it was so old. incorrect

We wouldn’t consider buying the house because it was so old. correct

Don’t use the semicolon as a colon, to introduce a list.

Elmer thought about what he’d wanted; a good name, a successful business, and a son to inherit his riches. incorrect

Elmer thought about what he’d wanted: a good name, a successful business, and a son to inherit his riches. correct

*******

Semicolons have specific uses. Using them—and using them correctly—can add choices to your writing options.

The semicolon stands out and draws attention. Use it sparingly.

Use the semicolon to join short, choppy sentences into a smoother flow.

Use the semicolon to add variety to your sentence styles.

Put the semicolon to work for you.

***

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29 Responses to “Don’t Fear the Semicolon—It’s a Useful Writing Tool”

  1. Pops says:

    Hello, Beth.

    This is an old post, but my question concerns the semicolon, so here it is:

    First, a snippet of dialogue…

    “I don’t know, but Bob’s talking about us on the phone with some bloke called Bill.” A twinge redirected his thoughts. “Come on; we’d better do what he wants, but first I need to find a toilet before I fill my… damn, who’s that?” His phone had come to life.

    Now, my question. Is the semicolon after ‘Come on’ correct? I read somewhere (once) that ‘come on’, when used in the form of a command, should be followed by a semicolon. It makes sense to me (looks right) but what do I know?

    Regards

  2. Pops, while you could consider “come on” an imperative and therefore might want to follow it with a semicolon, the phrase is actually an interjection. And that means it’s typically followed by a comma or an exclamation point. Go with the comma in this case. However, consider a period after wants and before but.

  3. Jake Houck says:

    Hi, Beth.

    Should I use a combination of both commas and semicolons in this sentence? If I follow Chicago’s nonrestrictive-appositive rule, I think the following is correct—albeit ugly. I have one wife, one son, and one daughter in the following example:

    My wife, Diane; my son, Mike; and my daughter, Amy, will be at the picnic. (Comma—not a semicolon—goes after “Amy,” correct?

    Or could I break the rule and do this?

    My wife Diane, my son Mike, and my daughter Amy will be at the picnic. (This version is much easier on the eyes.)

    Which would you opt for, without recasting?

    Thank you!

    • Jake, since there’s little chance of confusion, you can definitely break the rule. But keep the commas.

      My wife, Diane, my son, Mike, and my daughter, Amy, will be at the picnic.

      I have noticed, however, over the last couple of years, that the rule for including this comma is being relaxed. Yet I find it useful to quickly identify singular or plural.

      • Jake Houck says:

        My wife, Diane, my son, Mike, and my daughter, Amy, will be at the picnic.

        To me, that sentence is a comma salad…lol. It looks as though six people are attending with all of those commas.

        Could we just write it as I’ve done below, and call it a day?

        My wife Diane, my son Mike, and my daughter Amy will be at the picnic.

        • Jake, you have three choices. You can use the commas, you can forgo the commas, or you can rewrite. Each option has pluses and limitations.

          You’re certainly right about the comma salad. But without commas before the names, you aren’t actually saying what you intended to say. But as I mentioned, some folks are recommending that you can do away with these commas. Still, not all sources recommend omitting the comma.

          I recognize your limitations, that sometimes you don’t have the choice to change wording. But punctuation can’t always save a poorly constructed sentence.

          Could you use something like this—

          My wife, son, and daughter—Diane, Mike, and Amy—will be at the picnic.

          Or can you use the sentence without the names?

          My wife, son, and daughter will be at the picnic.

          —————

          If you can’t reword, you have to decide which of the not-so-good choices are least offensive.

  4. Jake Houck says:

    Hi, Beth,

    Would you go with (1) or (2) below?

    (1) Mike, 6, Farrell, 5, and Fabio, 8, will be at the party. (Straight commas throughout?)

    (2) Mike, 6; Farrell, 5; and Fabio, 8, will be at the party.
    (If this is the correct choice with the commas and semicolons, do I place a comma or semicolon after “8”?)

    In fiction could we spell out the numbers? Or will this confuse the reader?

    Mike, six; Farrell, five; and Fabio, eight, will be at the party.

    And are both technically correct below—yes or no? Which is preferred—(3) or (4)?

    (3) Mike scored eight points, Bob three, and Louis four.

    (4) Mike scored eight points; Bob, three; and Louis, four.

    Thanks again, Beth!

     

    • Jake, you can use either #1 or #2. For ages written in this manner, the commas are okay and the semicolon might be too fussy. But the semicolon is technically correct.

      For fiction or nonfiction, spelling the numbers out is probably better. The numbers are all less than ten, so spelling them works according to the style guides.

      Number 3 and number 4 are both correct. You can use #3 when there’s no chance for readers to become confused. When the sentence is more confusing or you need to make sure readers can follow easily, use #4.

  5. Jake Houck says:

    My last question for a while.

    I often see people use the following atop an email or official correspondence as a salutation:

    Hi Valerie,

    Shouldn’t it be:
    (1) Hi, Valerie, (I believe this is technically correct)
    (2) Hi, Valerie: (okay with colon?)
    (3) Hi, Valerie— (okay with em-dash?)

    Are (1), (2), and (3) correct? Which is the most preferred of the three?

    Thank you!

    • Jake, for this one, use a period, especially for formal or business correspondence. This is not the same salutation as Dear Valerie—which would be followed by a comma (informal) or colon (for business).

      This is a complete sentence, so punctuate it as one.

      For informal emails to friends? The dash would work as well.

  6. Pops says:

    Hello, Beth

    I seek again your wisdom. Would you consider the use of a semicolon appropriate in the following narrative:

    Tax, VAT, wages, the cake-supplier’s tip; every facet of Bob’s business had come under scrutiny, but not a solitary bad penny had turned up.

    I could rewrite it, but I like the way it reads. Then again, I’m biased.

    Regards

    • Pops, I wouldn’t use the semicolon here. This is not a separation between two independent clauses, so it needs something else. I suggest a dash. I would have suggested a colon (or dash) had the sentence ended with scrutiny.

      • Pops says:

        Hello, Beth

        Thank you for the response. You must get a bit fed-up with all these niggling questions.

        I’ve decided to run with the following. Any thoughts? My aim is to highlight the (absurd) lengths the scrutiniser is willing to go in order to achieve his goal.

        Tax, VAT, wages – the cake-supplier’s tip – every facet of Bob’s business had come under scrutiny, but not a solitary bad penny had turned up.

        Regards

        • Pops, for clarity and proper grammar, try something like these—

          Every facet of Bob’s business had come under scrutiny—taxes, VAT, wages, and even the danged cake-supplier’s tip—but not a solitary bad penny had turned up.

          Every facet of Bob’s business—taxes, VAT, wages, and even the cake-supplier’s tip—had come under scrutiny, but not a solitary bad penny had turned up.

          Taxes, VAT, wages—even the danged cake-supplier’s tip—had come under scrutiny when XYZ had decided to examine Bob’s business, but not a solitary bad penny had turned up.

          ———

          Setting the cake-supplier’s tip off with dashes means that the sentence should be grammatically correct without those words and dashes, but it isn’t. Thus my suggestions.

          • Pops says:

            Hello, Beth

            Thank you again for your excellent guidance. Very helpful. I will endeavour to keep things grammatically correct in future.

            Regards

  7. Kathryn says:

    Would you use a semicolon to separate the items in a sentence of this form?

    “This is a list with one; two – here is some extra information about two; three; and four things.”

    • Kathryn, you’re asking that instead of a comma that breaks up one or more of the parts, you want to use a dash for the internal punctuation and therefore want to know if semicolons are still necessary?

      Technically semicolons wouldn’t be necessary. And you probably wouldn’t need semicolons for other reasons. To cut down on confusion, we use the semicolon when that internal punctuation is already a comma. But if there is no comma, we shouldn’t need the semicolon.

      Example—

      I have two dogs, a cat with only three legs—she was hit by a car many years ago—a very old goldfish, and three little brothers under the age of four.

      ——–

      There’s no reason to substitute semicolons for the commas in that example.

      Is that the setup you had in mind? If not, let me know.

      • Kathryn says:

        Yes, that’s what I was looking for. Thanks!

        To me it looks odd that two of the items in the list don’t have a comma between them, so I didn’t think it would be correct that way, but it looks equally odd as well as semantically confusing to replace the second dash with a comma, and odder still to use both.

        You would end up with the same issue with the semicolon, but since it’s a stronger separator I was thinking it could close off both the comma and the dash.

        My thinking was along the lines of this… If you had either the comma or the dash on its own, you would have an opening and closing one, so it feels like one is being omitted. (“I carried my cat – she has only three legs – up the stairs.” or “My cat, having only three legs, hopped up the stairs.”)

        I suppose that could just be because I’m a programmer and so I’m used to start tags having matching end tags, elements in a list always having the same separator between them, and so on.

        • Kathryn, you definitely wouldn’t use both the dash and comma, but you you’re right—commas, dashes, and parentheses come in pairs when they’re used to set off text midsentence. I see a lot of manuscripts with a parenthetical or aside that’s begun with a dash and ended with a comma—that’s incorrect. If it starts with a dash, it ends with a dash.

          ——-
          The reason you wouldn’t double up on punctuation is that the dash replaces the comma. An example—

          She was sweet, even more musically talented than her sister, and a whiz with puzzles.

          She was sweet—even more musically talented than her sister—and a whiz with puzzles.

          ——–
          A tip: If you add parentheses, the punctuation remains the same. That is, the parentheses don’t replace a comma or other punctuation. If you insert parentheses where you had a comma, the comma is included outside the closing parenthesis.

          The little boy chased his dog, but the puppy wouldn’t stop.

          The little boy chased his dog (the Maltese, not the mutt), but the puppy wouldn’t stop.

  8. Jake Houck says:

    My mother, Theresa; my son, Michael; and my daughter, Alexis, will be attending the event.

    First of all, is the sentence above very technically correct in terms of punctuation?

    (I say that the mix of semicolons and commas are correct here because I have one mother, one son, and one daughter. Also, a comma, not a semicolon, follows “Alexis.” Good with the punctuation?)

    Attending the event are my mother, Theresa; my son, Michael; and my daughter, Alexis.
    (O.K. to you as punctuated?)

    Do you think a better solution would be just commas. It’s cleaner and uncluttered, but it breaks the nonrestrictive appositive rule. Would you support the rendition below minus the required semicolons?

    My mother Theresa, my son Michael, and my daughter Alexis will be attending the event.

    However, matter how you slice or dice the following rendition, I think that we need the semicolons. Agreed?

    Attending the event are my mother, Theresa; my son, Michael; and my daughter, Alexis.

    Beth, which version would you personally use—(1) or (2) below? Keep in mind the same criteria applies, that is, one mother, one daughter, and one son.

    (1) My mother, Theresa; my son, Michael; and my daughter, Alexis, will be attending the event.

    (2) My mother Theresa, my son Michael, and my daughter Alexis will be attending the event.

    Thank you, Beth😆

    • Jake, apparently I put this one aside and never got back to it.

      I wouldn’t use semicolons for any of these. There’s no reason for them.

      I would use a comma between mother and Theresa. Most of the time I’d use and recommend a comma between son/daughter and the name if they are the only son and daughter, but that rule could be relaxed to avoid the use of a lot of commas. Some style folks have relaxed the rule entirely, but I like it for the distinction. The use or nonuse of a comma before the name conveys information quite easily.

  9. Richard says:

    When listing job duties on a resume, where there is no subject of a sentence, and only a list of verb phrases is it appropriate to separate the phrases with a semicolon as in the following example?:

    Kept files in order; typed and mailed documents; maintained order in office; greeted customers; answered phones.

    • Richard, there’s no need for a semicolon in your example; use a comma to separate items in a list. If one or more of those items contained commas, then you’d want to use a semicolon to separate the list items.

      So—

      kept files in order, typed and mailed documents, maintained order in office, greeted customers, answered phones

      But—

      kept files in order; typed and mailed documents, correspondence, and monthly financial reports; maintained order in office; greeted customers; answered phones

      Another choice for a resume is to list duties in bullet form rather than in paragraph form.

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