How to use a semicolon

As punctuation marks go, the semicolon is much misunderstood. Many writers use it where a colon or comma would be more appropriate, and vice versa; other writers ignore it rather than risk misusing it. Yet the semicolon is not difficult to master. It has a number of uses, some of which are very handy and some of which you’re unlikely to need.

Style and usage guides often stick to two main categories of semicolon usage; others subdivide these categories and include archaic and less common usages. It may help to bear this in mind, because the categories can overlap slightly. The divisions below are not definitive, but will help break up a rather long post.

semicolon-sSemicolons are often misused to introduce a list, but a colon is usually what’s called for here. So without further ado:

1. If any item in a list or series has an internal comma, semicolons can be used to divide the items:

Research was conducted by laboratory technicians in University of Limerick; National University of Ireland, Galway; Trinity College, Dublin; University College Cork; and Dublin City University.

The bag that was found on the hill contained a paperback novel; a lunchbox, empty except for some crumbs; a green fold-up umbrella; and an Ordinance Survey map, which had notes made on it with a pen.

2. Similarly, semicolons can be used to separate coordinate clauses in long sentences. Many of these clauses contain commas, allowing semicolons to emphasize the overall structure and distinct parts of the sentence. They steer the reader through long and sometimes complex passages (though neither of the following examples is particularly complex):

“It would have been in vain for Scrooge to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes; that bed was warm, and the thermometer a long way below freezing; that he was clad but lightly in his slippers, dressing-gown, and nightcap; and that he had a cold upon him at that time.” (Charles Dickens)

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish little selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” (George Bernard Shaw)

3. Semicolons can be used to coordinate independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions are but, and, so, or, nor, for and yet – basic words that show the relationship between two connected clauses. If any of these is present there is usually no need for a semicolon, unless the writer wants a bigger pause, perhaps to emphasise whatever follows (see quote by Bacon, below).

Sometimes the clauses joined by a semicolon reflect one another, in the sense that they contain mutually antithetical or complementary ideas:

“If youth knew; if age could.” (Henri Estienne)

“In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.” (Sir Francis Bacon)

4. The semicolon has been called a kind of supercomma because it introduces a pause somewhere between that of a comma and a full stop. If you can read clauses as separate sentences, but their respective contents are related closely enough to warrant their sharing a sentence, a semicolon may be the most suitable mark:

“Beauty is worse than wine; it intoxicates both the holder and the beholder.” (Aldous Huxley)

“No man is offended by another man’s admiration of the woman he loves; it is the woman only who can make it a torment.” (Jane Austen)

“The present season was indeed divine; the flowers of spring bloomed in the hedges, while those of summer were already in bud.” (Mary Shelley)

The present post includes two semicolons used in this manner, though with less panache than the examples above.

5. Some style guides recommend using semicolons after each item (except the last) in a bullet point list, if the entries are short enough to begin with lowercase letters. Where bullet points contain full sentences, begin with uppercase letters and end with full stops.

6. Finally, a note on conjunctive adverbs, which include accordingly, after all, anyway, also, besides, consequently, finally, for example, furthermore, hence, however, in contrast, incidentally, indeed, in fact, instead, meanwhile, moreover, namely, nevertheless, nonetheless, now, on the other hand, otherwise, similarly, still, therefore, thus, and undoubtedly.

These can function as conjunctions but they are not true conjunctions – they are transitional words or phrases that join independent clauses. When conjunctive adverbs lie between two independent clauses, they are often best preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma, though this is not always the case.

Tomorrow will begin brightly; however, rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

This information could also be phrased as follows:

Tomorrow will begin brightly. However, rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

Better still, however could be swapped for but, and the punctuation tidied accordingly:

Tomorrow will begin brightly, but rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

But the following formulations are more common:

Tomorrow will begin brightly, however rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

Tomorrow will begin brightly, however, rain will spread from the west over the course of the day.

The former treats however as a simple substitute for but, i.e. as a pure conjunction, which it isn’t, while the latter generates a comma splice that renders however ambiguous, since it could belong to either clause. Using however where but (or though, yet or still) would do the job can make a sentence slower and stuffier.


11 Responses to How to use a semicolon

  1. […] After I wrote an overview of semicolon use, a friend pointed out that the mark is also commonly used in winking smileys: ;). He described it […]

  2. […] splices, which I’ll describe another time. They are mentioned in the final bullet point of my earlier post on semicolons, which also has more on the punctuation that goes with however. In short, the conjunctive adverb […]

  3. Thank you for this article, it clarifies many of the issues that come across my mind while I write.

  4. luis says:

    Thanks for this post.

    Could you please help me with this question?:

    When each item of a list is composed of several long sentences, can you just separate them with a point? or you use other connectors? I have the feeling sometimes the next connector “first”, “second”, “then”, “next” gets lost and the list is not easy to read anymore. Could we write “;” before the “second”, “then”, “next” to separate the items clearly?


    Today I did many things: first, I went shopping with my sister. I bought a jean and a jacket. A special product for washing the jacket was offered to me for a cheap price. Second, I called Maria. Maria is always in a good mood although she was fired last month. She told me the next week she will travel to Paris. Next, I took the tram and went back home. The landlord was there waiting for me to arrive. He told me I should pay the rent on time. It’s strange, I though I had made all the payments correctly. Finally, I cooked something for dinner. I prepared pasta with tomato sauce. The taste was good, but last time it tasted better.

    Thanks in advance!

  5. I am struggling with this sentence. Should there be a comma or a semicolon after the last item in the following sentence:

    Council Members Steve Porter, District 1; Bridget Yeung, District 2; and Amy Mitchell, District 3, will take the oath of office on May 16.

    I like the comma, but don’t want it to imply only Amy Mitchell will take the oath of office. And with a semicolon, it seems too much of a separation between the list, which is the subject, and the verb.

    • Stan Carey says:

      The semicolons are unnecessary here; indeed, they cause a little bother, as you’ve found. Commas alone suffice, with no stop after ‘3’:

      Council Members Steve Porter, District 1, Bridget Yeung, District 2, and Amy Mitchell, District 3 will take the oath of office on May 16.

      • No, you are wrong about that, sir. A semicolon is used when punctuating a list or series of elements in which one or more of the elements contains an internal comma. I am not confused about that part. I was just concerned about the last comma. I got confirmation from Jeff Rubin, founder of National Punctuation Day, this morning that how I have it is correct.

        • Stan Carey says:

          I’m not wrong, and you’re being a bit rude. If you read my post before asking for my help, you’ll have seen that the use of semicolons you mention is no. 1 in my list. But in many contexts, including the one you describe, other styles are also possible; semicolons are not mandatory in such cases, and indeed can be more trouble than they’re worth. This is a good example of the One Right Way fallacy.
          Incidentally, Jeff Rubin is not someone from whom I would take advice on punctuation.

          • My apologies. I did not intend to be rude. From all the places I looked, my use of semicolons is correct. I was just concerned about the final comma.

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