How to Use a Semicolon


Semicolons (;) are sexy when used correctly. They are so cool, they can not only replace a comma but also an entire word. Many writers often misuse them or use a comma instead.

Some writers discourage semicolon usage in Web writing because they are hard to see, but sometimes you have to use them in order to save space and manage your tone. Periods are often hard stops, and semicolons are a good way to keep the reader reading and keep you from sounding abrupt.

Common terms used in this post:

Conjunction = A word that connects words or groups of words. Eg: and, but, or

Here’s a quick guide to semicolons:

Rule 1: Use a semicolon to join two complete sentences if you want to eliminate the conjunction.

Example: We’ll talk tomorrow; I’ll give you the details.

Rule 2: Use a semicolon between two sentences with a conjunction if the first sentence has a comma.

Example: When I finish the list, I will email you; and you can start your project.

Rule 3: Use a semicolon before introductory words such as however, therefore, and for example, if they introduce a complete sentence. Then use a comma after the introductory word.

Example: I went to the bookstore; however, I did not find the book I needed.

Rule 4: It is acceptable to use either a semicolon or a comma before an introductory word if it introduces a list. Use a comma after the introductory word.

Example: I bought all of my supplies; for example, pens, paper, stapler, and laptop.

Example (with comma): I bought all of my supplies, for example, pens, paper, stapler, and laptop.

Rule 5: Semicolons separate multiple units that have commas within them. Think multiple cities and states. Note the semicolon before and.

Example: We traveled to Chicago, Illinois; Nashville, Tennessee; and Austin, Texas.

For those punctuation nerds out there, check out the 13 little-known punctuation marks. My favorite is the sarcmark; what’s yours?

Sources: The Blue Book of Punctuation and Grammar, my brain