Grammar Monster
Grammar Monster

What Are Semicolons? (with Examples)

What Are Semicolons? (with Examples)

A semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark used (1) in complex lists (2) when a slight break is preferable to new sentence, and (3) before conjunctions (e.g., and, or, but) in certain circumstances.

Below is a quick overview of when semicolons are used. Click here for a more comprehensive version of this list or click on the "Read more" link with each entry.

When to Use Semicolons (A Very Quick Overview)

Below is a quick overview on when to use semicolons.

(1) Use semicolons in complex lists (i.e., when the list items themselves contain commas).

Semicolons can be used to outrank any commas which appear in list items.
  • The dinner guests will be Lord Loxley, aged 91; Lady Loxley, aged 41; and Master Loxley, aged 42
In this list, the list items are:
  • Lord Loxley, aged 91
  • Lady Loxley, aged 41
  • Master Loxley, aged 42
Notice how each list item contains a comma. This is why commas are not used to separate the list items. It would be confusing. Semicolons are used to outrank the commas in the list items.

Not all list items have to have commas to justify using semicolons. Only one does. For example:
  • Lord Loxley, aged 91; Lady Loxley; and Master Loxley
Read more about semicolons in lists

(2) Use a semicolon to merge two sentences into one to create a smooth transition between the sentences.

Most sentences start with a capital and end with a full stop / period . However, when a smooth transition is required, the full stop / period can be replaced by a semicolon.
  • Jane was one of the lucky ones. She only had to sit through it twice.
  • Jane was one of the lucky ones; she only had to sit through it twice.
Note: You cannot do this with a comma.
  • Jane was one of the lucky ones, she only had to sit through it twice.
  • (This is called a run-on sentence or a comma fault.)
Do not overuse semicolons. They quickly become annoying. If you've used this technique twice in ten pages of writing, then you're probably using it too often.

Often, when merging two sentences into one, the second sentence will start with a bridging phrase (or a transitional phrase as it's called). Common ones are However, As a result, Consequently, and Therefore.

On occasion, a transitional phrase can be preceded by semicolon to create a smoother transition than a full stop / period.
  • Vacation used to be a luxury. However, in today's world, it has become a necessity.
  • Vacation used to be a luxury; however, in today's world, it has become a necessity.
Note: As before, you cannot do this with a comma.
  • Vacation used to be a luxury, however, in today's world, it has become a necessity.
Read more about using semicolons to extend a sentence
Read more about semicolons before transitional phrases
Read more about run-on sentences

(3) You can use a semicolon before a conjunction

Often two sentences are merged into one using a coordinate conjunction (a word like and, or, but). For example:
  • Lee loves pies. He loves cakes.
  • Lee loves pies, and he loves cakes.
  • (The conjunction and is used to merge the sentences into one. When using a conjunction for this purpose, use a comma before the conjunction.)
When the sentences themselves contain commas, you can outrank those commas by using a semicolon before the conjunction.
  • With a fridge full of cheese-and-onion pies, Lee obviously loves pies; but he prefers, from what I have seen, Eccles cakes.
This is not a common practice these days; but, if you think it will help your readers, you can use a semicolon before a coordinate conjunction.

Read more about semicolons before conjunctions