What Are Semicolons? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Semicolons

A semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark used:
  • In complex lists
  • When a slight break is preferable to new sentence
  • Before conjunctions (e.g., and, or, but) in certain circumstances.
Read more about using semicolons.

How Semicolons Are Used

Here is a quick overview on how semicolons are used:

(1) 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) 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) 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

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Other Punctuation Marks

Here is a slider with lessons to the other punctuation marks:

Why Should I Care about Semicolons?

The rules for using semicolons are relatively simple (compared to, say, commas or apostrophes), but, as any proofreader will tell you, they are regularly misused. Once you've learned how to use semicolons, you should limit their use because, usually, the simpler alternative is better and the overuse of semicolons gets annoying quickly.

Read more about using semicolons and the alternatives.

See Also

Much more about using semicolons What is punctuation? What are apostrophes? What are colons? What are commas? What are dashes? What is ellipsis? What are exclamation marks? What are hyphens? What is a full stop / period? What are parentheses (i.e., brackets)? What are questions marks? What are quotation marks? Glossary of grammatical terms