Semicolons with Conjunctions

by Craig Shrives

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Using Semicolons before Conjunctions

A semicolon is used before a conjunction for one of two reasons: (1) to divide a compound sentence with lots of commas, and (2) to separate list items that contain commas.

(1) Use a semicolon before a conjunction in a compound sentence with lots of commas. For example:
  • John Smith, a boy from my village, beat Garry Kasparov; but Mr. Allan, our school janitor, beats John regularly.
  • (This is a compound sentence (i.e., a sentence made up of two "sentences"). In this example, the two "sentences" are joined by "but." Normally, there would be a comma before "but." However, as there are already lots of commas in these "sentences," it is possible to use a semicolon before "but" to outrank those commas.)
(2) Use a semicolon before a conjunction in a list that has commas in the list items. For example:
  • The crew will be Mark Jones, the skipper; Toby Jones, the engineer and helmsman; and Tracy Plant, the trimmer.
  • (This list has three list items. As the list items contain commas, they are separated by semicolons to outrank those commas. This includes a semicolon before the conjunction before the final list item.)
semicolons with conjunctions

Replacing a Conjunction with a Semicolon

A semicolon can replace a conjunction that merges two "sentences" if your two "sentences" feel like cause and effect. In other words, if you could merge your two sentences into one with a word like "because" or "as" (called subordinating conjunctions), then you can use a semicolon in place of the conjunction. For example:
  • Attitude is important. Your behavior radiates how you feel. (Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno)
  • (This is the original.)
  • Attitude is important because your behavior radiates how you feel.
  • (This works.)
  • Attitude is important; your behavior radiates how you feel.
  • (Using a semicolon to replace the conjunction is an option because the two sentences feel like cause and effect.)
Read more about using semicolons to replace conjunctions.

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

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See Also

What are conjunctions? List of 50 conjunctions What are independent clauses? Semicolons before transitional phrases (e.g. however) Semicolons in lists Semicolons to extend a sentence Types of sentence

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