Semicolons: When to Use Semicolons in Writing (Examples)

By Carly Forsaith, updated on May 16, 2023

Semicolons are a nifty bit of punctuation you can use to impress. But do you know the rules for proper usage? If you're not sure, don't worry, as that's what we're going to cover today.

In short:

  • Semicolons mark a break in a sentence and help you connect two closely related ideas. 

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

When to Use Semicolons

Semicolons are punctuation marks you can use to mark a pause within a sentence. The pause marked by a semicolon is longer than that of a comma but shorter than that of a period.

  • They're also very different from colons, which are used to introduce an idea.

What's more, semicolons go a step further than most punctuation in that they help connect two ideas together. And that's what we're going to learn about today.

To Join Independent Clauses

The first function of a semicolon is to join two independent, related clauses. As a reminder, an independent clause could be a complete sentence because it makes sense on its own. Case in point in the following example, where both clauses don't need each other to make sense but complete each other by providing additional information.

I might not go out tonight; I'm feeling a little under the weather.

So, using the example above, if we didn't have the semicolon, we'd have something like:

I might not go out tonight, because I'm feeling a little under the weather.

Both sentences are correct; it's a simple stylistic preference. The first sentence is shorter, so using a semicolon can help declutter longer paragraphs.

Never use a semicolon to connect an independent clause with a dependent clause.

Although Kate is very kind; the same can't be said for Keith. 

Here are some more examples of a semicolon connecting two independent clauses:

Think about my offer; we can discuss it tomorrow.

I expect an employee parking space; it's in my contract.

She said she would help you; Sally is a woman of her word.

Top tip! Note that you shouldn't use a capital letter after a semicolon unless a proper noun follows it.

Before a Conjunctive Adverb

Replace the period with a semicolon before a conjunctive adverb or a transitional expression, such as:

Let's take a look at some examples that illustrate this.

The project is progressing well; although we could use an extra pair of hands.

He's made good use of his time at the company; indeed, he's already got everyone wrapped around his finger!

Global warming is real; case in point, it's snowing in April.

In Complex Lists

Commas are the default punctuation used in lists. And sometimes, you'll introduce that list with a colon. But semicolons also have a place in lists if the list is complex or lengthy or if the semicolon can increase readability in any way.

Take the following sentence, for example:

We need to eat breakfast, pack the car, and get the kids ready, and we still need to find the keys.

This sentence uses the word 'and' twice, has three commas, and is quite long. This makes it quite difficult to read. A semicolon would come in handy here to separate the two independent clauses.

We need to eat breakfast, pack the car, and get the kids ready; and we still need to find the keys.

Here's another example, this time, where the items in the list are quite long. We end up with lots of commas, and it's unclear where the separation between each item is.

Bearded dragons like to eat small insects, like worms and crickets, vegetables, like parsley and sprouts, and fruits, like strawberries and apricots.

Let's fix it by adding in some semicolons to separate the items.

Bearded dragons like to eat small insects, like worms and crickets; vegetables, like parsley and sprouts; and fruits, like strawberries and pears.

Much better, right?

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on semicolons and how to use them. I hope you found it helpful and that I've convinced you they're not as complicated as they seem.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Semicolons are a form of punctuation that marks a pause in a sentence.
  • They're more substantial than a comma but not as strong as a period.
  • Semicolons join independent clauses before a conjunctive adverb or in complex lists.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our free online Grammar Book, a database of grammar articles just like this one.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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