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Grammar help: Semi-colon - the most missunderstood piece of punctuation there is. How do you use it? What is its job?

Updated on April 27, 2014

There are two ways to use a semi-colon and we will look at both here in this hub.

You will see that using these easy, common-sense rules that the semi-colon isn't that hard to understand. It is the most misunderstood piece of punctuation we use in the English language however, when used properly, it is much easier to work with than the more common comma because the rules are more clear.

How do most people use it?

Today we use the semi-colon to show others how we feel instead of using it in the correct grammatical sense. The smiles have took over the world; happy, sad or winking at someone when your are being cheeky.

;) = Wink (without nose)

;-) = Wink (with nose)

These to little emotions are used when texting or messaging and can show anyone what you mean behind that message.

Rule 1:

To Connect Two Independent Clauses

Ok what does that mean? An independent clause is a series of words that could stand alone as a complete sentence - a simple sentence in other words. When you have two simple sentences that you want to connect to form a longer one you can use a semi-colon between them.

Example 1: This could be a simple sentence; this could be another.

Note: It is not correct to use a comma in this case. This is called a 'comma splice', which is a nasty grammar mistake.

A basic rule to use a semi-colon in this way is to think of two simple sentences joined by a connective or conjunction and the semi-colon is used to replace it. This normally takes the form of replacing the 'and' within a sentence:

Example 2: This could be a simple sentence and this could be another.

This becomes:

This could be a simple sentence; this could be another.

Example 3: I wish I could use a semi-colon because it makes work so much easier.

Becomes:

I wish I could use a semi-colon; it makes work so much easier.

Example 4: Happiness isn't something you feel as its something you remember.

Becomes:

Happiness isn't something you feel; its something you remember.

Example 5: Fred loves cake but Susan loves salad.

Becomes:

Fred loves cake; Susan loves salad.


Note: The two simple sentences (independent clauses) must be closely linked to use the semi-colon in this way.

Bad examples:

Fred loves cake; Susan watched TV.

This isn't how to use it; I love it when I get it right.

Fish and chips is a great English dish; Fred loves cake.


If you are unsure, then read the sentence back - does it sound right? Does it sound as if you are talking to someone as you would normally? If yes then it sounds natural and therefore should be ok.

If it sounds forced in anyway then it probably isn't correct.

Rule 2:

Use it in a detailed list:

A list is something most of us associate with commas. Each part of the list is separated by a comma to make sure they stand apart.

Example 1: I went to the shop and bought some eggs, bacon, bread and sauce.

Example 2: Last night I ate my dinner, played the Xbox, had a bath and went to bed

When you want to write a detailed list though, you need something more comprehensive than the comma. You need to pause slightly longer when reading it to allow time to digest the individual parts of the list.

To turn a list, which can be boring when reading into something more interesting you need to add detail and then use semi-colons instead of commas when writing it.

Example 3: I went to the shop and bought some eggs, bacon, bread and sauce.

Becomes:

I went to the shop down the road where I bought some delicious eggs; some streaky, unsmoked bacon; some thick sliced, white bread and some delicious brown sauce to spread on the to of the sandwich I was planning to make.

Example 4: Last night I ate my dinner, played my Xbox, had a bath and went to bed.

Becomes:

Last night, after a hard day at work, I stuffed down a plate of fish and chips; completed the level, which had frustrated me for days on the Xbox; relaxed in a steaming bath before hitting my bed and falling to sleep before my head hit the pillow.

The last couple of examples have used semi-colons because of the detail in each list.

Example 5:

My football team consisted of: Fred, who is the best quarterback in the world; Brian, who is amazing with the ball; Sam, who is a semi-pro and myself, who put the team together.

(In this example I have added detail about people in the list adding a 'who' clause for each.)


If the list includes things like places it is better to use semi-colons - the reason being is that you might need commas to separate the different parts of a place. i.e.

I want to visit: London, England; Paris, France; New York, America and Quebec, Canada.


Note: Every time I have introduced a list I have used a colon. The job of the colon is to do just that - introducing the list.

Does this hub help you with using semi-colons?

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If you learn these two simple rules then you can't go wrong. The two main rules, which are easy to identify, can make your writing more interesting. Have a go and see what you think.

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