Semicolon before a Conjunction (e.g., "And," "Or," "But")
The Quick AnswerWhen 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 (Even though using a semicolon before a conjunction is quite an outdated practice, you can use a semicolon if you think it makes your sentence structure clearer.)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 a Conjunction in a Compound SentenceA 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.)
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 ConjunctionsHere 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 FashionedMany 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 ConjunctionsWords 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.)
- I may consider your plan, or I may stick with mine. (Here, "or" is coordinating conjunction.)
(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.)