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The Rules for Using SemicolonsSemicolons are like soft periods (full stops) because a semicolon can be used to merge two "sentences" into one. For example:
- Never pick a fight with an ugly person; they have nothing to lose. (A semicolon gives a smoother transition than a period.)
- I will contact Matt, the baker; Simon, the butcher; and Janet, the lawyer. (Notice that the list items contain commas, e.g., "Matt, the baker.")
Table of Contents
- Four Ways to Use Semicolons
- Use of Semicolons Explained in Detail
- (1) Using Semicolons to Separate List Items
- (2) Using a Semicolon to Create a Smooth Transition between Two Sentences
- (3) To Create a Smooth Transition into a Sentence Starting with a Transitional Phrases
- (4) Using a Semicolon to Merge Two Comma-filled Sentences Joined with a Conjunction
- Video Lesson
- Lesson Summary
- Printable Test
Four Ways to Use SemicolonsSemicolons are used in four ways:
(1) To separate list items (when the list items contain commas).
- Brian, the officer in charge; Mark, the chef; and Dexter, my dog
(2) To create a smoother transition between two sentences.
- Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open. (Author Stephen King)
(3) To create a smooth transition into a sentence starting with a transitional phrase (e.g., "however," "as a result").
- It was freezing; however, we still enjoyed it.
(4) To merge two comma-filled sentences joined with a conjunction (e.g., "and," "or," "but").
- Yesterday, it was, to our surprise, sunny; but today, as expected, it's dull.
Use of Semicolons Explained in DetailBelow are more details and more examples covering the four uses of the semicolon.
(1) Using Semicolons to Separate List Items
This is a normal list:
- the master, the servant, and the cook
- the master, aged 81; the servant, aged 19; and the cook, aged 31
- the master, aged 81; the servant; and the cook
- the master, aged 81 (82 next week); the servant; and the cook
Read more about semicolons in lists.
(2) Using a Semicolon to Create a Smooth Transition between Two Sentences
- It was serious. She broke a toe.
- It was serious; she broke a toe. (A semicolon is less of a "speed bump" than starting a new sentence.)
- Never pick a fight with an ugly person. They've got nothing to lose.
- Never pick a fight with an ugly person; they've got nothing to lose.
- It was serious, she broke a toe.
- Never pick a fight with an ugly person, they've got nothing to lose.
(3) To Create a Smooth Transition into a Sentence Starting with a Transitional Phrases
A conjunctive adverb usually starts with a capital letter and follows a period (full stop), but it is possible to create a smoother transition by replacing the period with a semicolon. For example:
- She broke her toe. As a result, the game was cancelled.
- She broke her toe; as a result, the game was cancelled.
- Vacation used to be a luxury. However, in today's world, it's become a necessity.
- Vacation used to be a luxury; however, in today's world, it's become a necessity.
- She broke her toe, as a result, the game was cancelled.
- Vacation used to be a luxury, however, in today's world, it's become a necessity.
Read more about semicolons before transitional phrases.
(4) Using a Semicolon to Merge Two Comma-filled Sentences Joined with a Conjunction
- Lee likes cake. He likes pies.
- Lee likes cake, and he likes pies. (Here, the conjunction "and" has been used to merge the two "sentences" into one. NB: The sentences are now independent clauses.)
However, when the "sentences" themselves contain commas, it is possible to outrank those commas by using a semicolon before the conjunction instead of a comma. For example:
- At the end of the day, Lee likes cake; and he likes, well, actually prefers, pies. (This is quite an outdated practice, but you can use a semicolon for this purpose if you think it'll help your readers.)
Here is a video summarizing this lesson on semicolons:
Lesson SummaryThis infographic summarizes the use of semicolons:
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