GrammarPhile Blog

How to Use Semicolons Correctly

Posted by Sara Richmond   Nov 9, 2023 8:00:00 AM

PRN_Blogpost_11092023“How hideous is the semicolon,” Samuel Beckett said.

If we had to guess, we’d say Sam received a particularly excruciating rejection letter from his first crush, complete with multiple semicolons.

We bear no such resentment. In fact, we think semicolons are incredibly useful. But let’s start at the beginning so everyone can join in the fun.

What Is a Semicolon?

A semicolon is a little punctuation person about to dance.

See here ➡️ ; ⬅️. Such incredible form! Such armless fluidity!

A semicolon is more forceful than a comma, but weaker than a period. It’s a way to separate two full sentences without breaking them apart, or a way to clarify a long sentence with two or more sections.

To be more specific, there are five common instances when you should use a semicolon.

5 Times to Use a Semicolon

1. Between two full sentences (called “independent clauses”) not joined by a conjunction.* (An independent clause is a group of words containing a subject and related verb that expresses a complete thought.)
  • Example 1: Samuel Beckett hates semicolons; who hurt him?
  • Example 2: We all have our favorite punctuation marks; I’m partial to em dashes myself.

2. Between two independent clauses joined by adverbs “however,” “therefore,” and the like.

  • Example 1: Abraham Lincoln values the humble semicolon; however, Samuel Beckett hates it furiously.
  • Example 2: Sam hated semicolons thoroughly; therefore, he suggested people never use them.

3. Before an expression such as “that is,” “for example,” or “namely,” when it introduces an independent clause.

  • Example 1: Sammie told everyone how much he loathed semicolons; namely, that they were “hideous.”
  • Example 2: Sam had a pretty dire view of more than just semicolons; for example, “Dream of Fair to Middling Women: A Novel” explores his disgust with romantic relationships.
4. Before a conjunction introducing an independent clause (instead of a comma) to separate the clauses more effectively or when the second independent clause has internal punctuation.
  • Example 1: Abraham Lincoln wasn’t known for his looks; yet some modern afficionados refer to him as “Baberaham” Lincoln.
  • Example 2: Honest Abe professed an affinity for semicolons; but his most famous speech, “The Gettysburg Address,” doesn’t have a single one, though it’s rife with commas.
5. In a complex series to avoid confusion or ambiguity.
  • Example 1: The total gold medals awarded during the Winter Olympics were as follows: France, 3; China, 8; United States, 7; Germany, 3; Great Britain, 5.
  • Example 2: The defendant, in an attempt to mitigate his sentence, pleaded that he had recently, on doctor’s orders, gone off his medications; that his car—which, incidentally, he had won in the late 1970s on Let’s Make a Deal—had spontaneously caught fire; and that he had not eaten for several days.**

When Not to Use a Semicolon

  • If your sentence is a combination of two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, use a comma.
    • Example 1: I hate ice cream, but I still eat it every day.
    • Example 2: She will walk to school, and she’ll probably complain the whole way.

  • If there isn’t much of a chance you’ll confuse readers while writing a series, use commas.

    • Example 1: Don’t you just love learning about commas, semicolons, periods, and all things grammar?
    • Example 2: If the answer to the prior question wasn’t “Yes,” or “Yeehaw,” or “I like it. I love it. I want some more of it,” then I am sad.

  • If you could easily divide one sentence into two without hurting readability or flow or sense, do so with a period between them.

    • Example 1: He told me he’d seen a butterfly shaped like a semicolon; I’m not sure what to believe. = He told me he’d seen a butterfly shaped like a semicolon. I’m not sure what to believe.
    • Example 2: The gastroenterologist told me he’d seen a colon shaped like a semitruck; his nurse said he was exaggerating. = The doctor told me he’d seen a colon shaped like a semitruck. His nurse said he was exaggerating.

If you’d like more information about the use of semicolons in index entries, parenthetical text citations, or with a second subtitle of a work, please comment below, and we may include it in a future post! You can also dive into The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, for details.

*These rules are summarized from The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition section on semicolons (6.56-6.60), which uses as the basis for our grammar style.

**This example was taken from The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, Section 6.60, because it’s hilarious and perfect.


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Topics: commas, semicolon

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