Semicolons with Conjunctions

by Craig Shrives

Using Semicolons with Conjunctions (e.g., "And," "But," and "Or")

You can use a semicolon with a conjunction:
  • In a compound sentence with lots of commas.
  • In a list with lots of commas.
semicolons with conjunctions

Semicolon with a Conjunction in a Compound Sentence

When a conjunction (e.g., "and," "but," "or") merges two sentences into one, it should be preceded by a comma. For example:
  • Mark trained as a solicitor, and Paul trained as a firefighter.
  • (The conjunction "and" has merged two sentences into one. The sentences have now become independent clauses of a single compound sentence.)
A conjunction that merges two "sentences" into one is usually preceded by a comma. (This is covered in the lesson on commas before conjunctions.) However, if the sentences themselves contain commas, it is possible to use a semicolon before the conjunction to make the sentence structure a little clearer. For example:
  • Mark, 23, trained as a solicitor; and Paul, Mark's younger brother, trained as a firefighter.
(Note: Using a semicolon in this way is quite an outdated practice. However, you can still use a semicolon if you think it makes things clearer for your readers.)

Another Example of a Semicolon with a Conjunction

Here is another example of a semicolon used in a compound sentence (i.e., a sentence with at least two independent clauses):
  • In the '60s, there were dozens of buzzards along the 7-mile trek; but, due to the decline in vermin, only 2 adults live in the area at present.
This compound sentence is made up of two "sentences":
In the 1960s, there were dozens of buzzards along the 7-mile trek.

Due to the decline in vermin, only 2 adults live in the area at present.

As these "sentences" both contain commas, it is possible to use a semicolon before a conjunction that merges them into a single sentence. Remember though that it would be far more common to use a comma and not a semicolon.)

Another Example of a Semicolon with a Conjunction

Here is another example:
  • Mark, Dawn, and Sally adore boiled spare ribs; but Julia, a staunch vegetarian, leaves the room when they are on the menu.
What is a Compound Sentence?

A sentence made up of two independent clauses is called a compound sentence. The conjunction that joins the two halves of a compound sentence should be preceded by a comma or possibly a semicolon.

Semicolon with a Conjunction in a List

With a simple list, the list items are separated by commas. For example:
  • John Smith, Janet Jones, Fred Bloggs, and John Doe
However, if the list items themselves contain commas, then it is possible to use semicolons to separate the list items. For example:
  • John Smith, the lawyer; Janet Jones, the CFO; Fred Bloggs, the accountant; and John Doe, the interpreter
With the top example (with commas as separators), the comma before the "and" is called a serial comma or an Oxford Comma. In the US, the serial comma is common. In the UK, it is less common.

Read more about the Oxford Comma.

When using semicolons as separators, you should use the semicolon with the conjunction. Here's the logic: If your list was complicated enough to warrant using semicolons, then you should maintain them throughout the structure of your list. (The semicolon before the conjunction in a list is sometimes jokingly called the "Oxford Semicolon," but - even so - it is far less contested than the Oxford Comma. If you've used semicolons as separators, use the "Oxford Semicolon."

Another Example with an "Oxford Semicolon"

Here is another example. This time, the list items contain commas and conjunctions, making the semicolons even more important for clarity:
  • New York, Washington, and Boston in the East; Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta in the South; and Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego in the West
Note: Before writing such a complex list, you should consider using bullet points.

Video on Using Semicolons

Here is a video on using semicolons, which covers using semicolons before conjunction in compound sentences and lists:

Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are conjunctions? What are independent clauses? Semicolons before transitional phrases (e.g. however) Semicolons in lists Semicolons to extend a sentence Types of sentence