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Grammar Drill: How Do I Correctly Use a Semicolon?

Updated on March 27, 2014
a semicolon: half period, half comma
a semicolon: half period, half comma

What is a Semicolon?

A semicolon is the piece of punctuation that looks like a period on top of a comma. It is the punctuation used between two complete ideas (a.k.a clauses) when you want a stop that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a period.

You cannot just throw a semicolon anywhere in a sentence where you feel it “fits.” There are certain rules governing a semicolon. As long as you use the semicolon according to these four rules, you will always use it correctly.

Rule #1: Replaces a Period

A semicolon can take the place of a period between two related sentences.

Semicolons help join two related simple sentences together to make a complex sentence by replacing the period. Look at the two following examples:

Example A

Johnny fell off the stage. He injured both of his ankles.

Johnny fell off the stage; he injured both of his ankles.

Example B

The air conditioner went out in the middle of July. They almost died from the heat.

The air conditioner went out in the middle of July; they almost died from the heat.

List of Some Conjunctive Adverbs

therefore, however, furthermore, similarly, accordingly, incidentally, finally, still, also, besides, incidentally, undoubtedly, consequently, meanwhile, moreover, as a result, on the other hand

Rule #2: Use with Conjunctive Adverbs

A semicolon can be used BEFORE the word however (and any other conjunctive adverb) to join two sentences.

Semicolons are sometimes used along with conjunctive adverbs. Conjunctive adverb is just fancy terminology for an adverb that joins two sentences. Words like however, instead, nevertheless, and consequently are all examples of conjunctive adverbs (check the blue box for more examples). These words do not always require a semicolon to be used with them. The only time that they require the use of a semicolon is if they are joining two complete ideas. Look at the two following examples:

Example A

It was Cynthia’s first night working as a waitress; however, she worked the floor as if she’d been doing it for years.

Example B

Angela never turned in any of her class assignments on time; consequently, her grade was suffering in the class.

Semicolons can be used in front of just about any –ly word.

Example A: We got to talk on the bus today; usually, the bus driver makes us ride in silence.

Example B: It seemed like they were driving forever; finally, they saw the welcome sign for California.

Example C: Joyce made a fashionably late entrance to the party; initially, she hadn’t been invited.

It’s important to remember that the semicolon always comes BEFORE the conjunctive adverb, not after it, and it is almost always followed by a comma.

conjunctions should not be used with semicolons
conjunctions should not be used with semicolons

Rule #3: Never Use with a Conjunction

Never use a semicolon along with a conjunction.

Semicolons and coordinating conjunctions are like oil and vinegar. They just don’t mix. What is a coordinating conjunction? It is a simple word that joins two simple sentences. FANBOYS is the acronym used to remember all of the coordinating conjunctions, which are for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. Below are examples of how people use semicolons and conjunctions incorrectly.

Incorrect: She wanted to go to the movies with her friends; but she had promised her mother that she’d help Mrs. Rochester watch her grandbabies.

Correct: She wanted to go to the movies with her friends, but she had promised her mother that she’d help Mrs. Rochester watch her grandbabies.

Incorrect: The family trip to Ottawa Beach was a complete nightmare; and they decided that they would never go back there again.

Correct: The family trip to Ottawa Beach was a complete nightmare, and they decided that they would never go back there again.

Using the three rules listed above, test your knowledge of semicolons by taking the following quiz:

Milestone Quiz: Test Your Knowledge of Semicolons

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Rule #4: Semicolons in a List

Semicolons are not just used to make complex sentences. Sometimes, a semicolon is needed to list a series of items, but this only happens when the items in the series already have commas. For example, if you are listing the cities and states you have visited, you would write it like this: I have visited Miami, Florida; Honolulu, Hawaii; Fresno, California and Athens, Georgia.

For it to be considered a series or a list, there must be at least THREE items in the list.

Now it's your turn! Take the challenging 10-question Pop Quiz below to see if you can effectively apply the information that you've learned. Good luck!

Semicolon Pop Quiz

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