When and How to Use a Semicolon in Writing

Semicolons have many uses, but they are often misused. Learning why and how semicolons are used will help improve anybody’s writing skills.

So what is that little comma with a dot above it anyway? Sure it’s sometimes seen between two sentences, but what other ways can it be used? And when should it be used? The semicolon is always used as a connecting punctuation; it is used to connect sentences or a list of items that has punctuation within it.

A Semicolon Between two Sentences

When should a semicolon be used to connect two sentences? It is best to connect sentences with a semicolon when they share similar ideas and they are relatively short in length, though this is not a stand-alone rule. Technically, any two sentences may be connected with a semicolon, but semicolons should be used relatively sparingly in papers because they draw more attention than coordinating conjunctions and periods.

  • Jane really liked the bookshe could relate to the protagonist.
  • Luther had no idea how well or poor he did this grading period; school was always a challenge for him.

A Semicolon Connected With a Transitional Phrase Between two Sentences

This is the same principle as the above rule, but instead of simply two sentences connected by a semicolon and a transitional phrase or conjunctive (transitional) adverb. When two sentences are connected with only the transitional words and commas instead of a semicolon, a run-on sentence is the result. This is one of the most common run-on situations writers find themselves in.

  • We were wearing the exact same dress; however, I was still triumphant because she paid full-price for hers.
  • Liz’s boyfriend doesn’t pay his bills on time; consequently, the bank declined him for a loan.

Semicolon use with Commas Within the Series

When there is a list of items within another list of items or just a list with commas, using only commas can jumble the information and readers can get lost within the information.

  • In his three best paintings, Jack uses combinations of reds, golds, and browns; blues, purples, and whites; and greens, grays, and yellows
  • Courtney has lived in Washington, D.C.; Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia.

When writers are unsure of when to use semicolons, they can remember that semicolons serve the function to connect sentences or ideas together. They are like glue; with them anyone can connect two sentences without a conjunction, can connect two sentences with a transitional phrase, and can clarify lists that are already filled with commas.

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