Semicolon before a Conjunction (e.g., "And," "Or," "But")

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The Quick Answer
When a conjunction (words like "and," "but," and "or") is used to merge two independent clauses into one sentence, it is possible to use a semicolon before the conjunction to outrank any commas in the clauses. For example:
  • Shakespeare, a great dramatist, wrote a great many plays; and he wrote a number of sonnets too.
  • (Even though using a semicolon before a conjunction is quite an outdated practice, you can use a semicolon if you think it makes your sentence structure clearer.)
semicolon before and, or , but (conjunctions)

Semicolon before a Conjunction in a Compound Sentence

A sentence that has two independent clauses is called a compound sentence. Here is an example of a compound sentence:
  • I like cakes, and I like pies.
  • (This sentence has two independent clauses (ones that could stand alone as sentences), making it a compound sentence. The two clauses are joined with the conjunction "and," which is preceded by a comma.)
Read more about conjunctions.

With a compound sentence, if at least one of the independent clauses contains commas, it is acceptable to use a semicolon before the conjunction instead of a comma. For example:
  • As she said, I like cakes; and I like pies, especially cheese and onion pies.
  • (With this example, the independent clauses contain commas. To outrank those commas, it is acceptable to use a semicolon before the "and.")

More Examples of Semicolons Used before Conjunctions

Here are some more semicolons used before conjunctions in real-life examples:
  • In fact, rather surprisingly, the majestic pike is hardly used in cooking today; but in Victorian times, pastry-topped pike was a very common dish.
  • (Here, a semicolon has been used before the conjunction "but" to outrank the other commas in the sentence.)
  • As the Dutch captain drafted the order banning the killing of the dodos, his sailors had the last one in their sights; and, as the muskets sounded, dodos were gone forever.
  • Before a war, military science seems a real science, like astronomy; but, after a war, it seems more like astrology. (Author Rebecca West)

It's Old Fashioned

Many people consider it old fashioned to use a semicolon before a conjunction these days. However, if you think it makes your sentence structure clearer, then you can use a semicolon before your conjunction.

More about Coordinating Conjunctions

Words like "and," "but," and "or" are called coordinating conjunctions. Sometimes, they are used to join two "sentences" together to form one. When a coordinating conjunction is used in this way, it should be preceded by a comma.
  • She cannot abide tennis, but she loves watching golf.
  • (Sentence 1 is "She cannot abide tennis." Sentence 2 is "She loves watching golf." The coordinating conjunction "but" merges the two sentences into one, turning the sentences into independent clauses within a compound sentence.)
Here is another example:
  • I may consider your plan, or I may stick with mine.
  • (Here, "or" is coordinating conjunction.)
When a coordinating conjunction joins two independent clauses, it is usually preceded by a comma. This page is about upgrading that comma to a semicolon to outrank any commas within those clauses.

(NB: The word "coordinate" means "of equal rank." In these sentences, both halves are considered to be the same rank (i.e., they are both independent clauses.)
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See Also

What are conjunctions? Run-on error with a comma Conjunctions and commas Conjunctions and semicolons Using semicolons before transitional phrases (e.g. however) Using semicolons in lists Using semicolons to extend a sentence