Using Semicolons

by Craig Shrives

Using Semicolons

Semicolons have four uses:

(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.

Not for Introductions

Semicolons are not used for introductions.
  • The Victorian printing set is missing the following characters; Q, R, K, and the question mark.
  • (It should be a colon.)
This includes introductions to bulleted lists. For example:
In my opinion, the best three films are;

(1) Jaws
(2) The Princess Bride
(3) Shawshank Redemption
Read more about the difference between colons and semicolons.

More about Using Semicolons

Semicolons are used to make lists clearer, but, mostly, they are used to control the flow of text from one sentence to the next.

Below are more details and more examples covering the four uses of the semicolon.

(1) Using Semicolons to Separate List Items

using semicolons in lists
Semicolons can be used in lists to outrank any commas that appear in list items. That's less complicated than it sounds.

This is a normal list:
  • the master, the servant, and the cook
In a normal list, the list items are separated by commas. However, sometimes the list items themselves contain commas. When this happens, you can use semicolons to separate them. For example:
  • the master, aged 81; the servant, aged 19; and the cook, aged 31
Not all of your list items have to contain commas to justify using semicolons. In fact, only one does. For example:
  • the master, aged 81; the servant; and the cook
You can also use parentheses (i.e., brackets) if you need to add more information. For example:
  • the master, aged 81 (82 next week); the servant; and the cook
Lists can get quite complicated. If the information is important, you should consider using bullet points.

Read more about semicolons in lists.

(2) Using a Semicolon to Create a Smooth Transition between Two Sentences

using a semicolon to merge two sentences
A semicolon can be used to replace a period (full stop) when a smooth transition is required between sentences. For example:
  • 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.)
Here is another example:
  • 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.
You cannot create a smooth transition between two sentences with a comma. For example:
  • It was serious, she broke a toe.
  • Never pick a fight with an ugly person, they've got nothing to lose.
These are run-on errors. (The run-on error is a common mistake.)

Do Not Overuse Semicolons!

Do not use too many semicolons in your writing. They get annoying quickly. Here are three scenarios when it would be acceptable to use a semicolon instead of a period (full stop):

(Scenario 1) When your two sentences feel like cause and effect.

If you could merge your two sentences into one with a word like "because" or "as" (called subordinating conjunctions), then consider a semicolon.
  • I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; because had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes. (Playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay)
(Scenario 2) When your two sentences have similar structures and deliberate repetition.
  • You don't pay taxes; they take taxes. (Comedian Chris Rock)
  • Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open. (Author Stephen King)
(Scenario 3) When your two sentences could be merged with a comma and a conjunction, e.g., "and," "or," "but," "for," "so" (especially "but," "for," and "so").
  • Go not to the elves for counsel; they will say both no and yes.
  • (This is acceptable.)
  • Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.
  • (This is original text by JRR Tolkien. Note the comma and "for.")

(3) To Create a Smooth Transition into a Sentence Starting with a Transitional Phrases

using a semicolon before however
This point is closely related to the last one. Often, when merging two sentences into one, the second sentence will start with a transitional phrase (or a conjunctive adverb as it's called). Common ones are "as a result," "consequently," "therefore," and "however."

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.
Here is another example:
  • 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.
Note: You cannot do this with a comma.
  • 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.
These are both run-on errors. (Note that the commas after the transitional phrase are all correct.)

Read more about semicolons before transitional phrases.

(4) Using a Semicolon to Merge Two Comma-filled Sentences Joined with a Conjunction

using a semicolon before and or but
It is common to merge two sentences into one using a conjunction (a word like "and," "or," "but"). For example:
  • 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.)
When this happens, it is normal to use a comma before the conjunction.

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.)
Read more about semicolons before conjunctions

More Resources to Help with Semicolons

Here is a video summarizing this lesson on semicolons:

A Slide Show Explaining Semicolons

This five-slide presentation explains how to use semicolons:


An Infographic Explaining Semicolons

This infographic summarizes the use of semicolons:
summary of using semicolons


If you wanted, you could get away with never using semicolons because there's always an alternative.

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See Also

Using apostrophes Using parentheses (brackets) Using colons Using commas Using dashes Using hyphens Using quotation marks

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