Think first; punctuate second.
It begins with a squinting of the eyes. Hm. A semicolon. You approach it with caution. Ok, I can do this. One dot, plus a comma. There. No, wait. That doesn’t look quite right.
The questions begin: Can I use a semicolon here? Should it be a colon instead? What’s the rule again?
Oh foot, I’ll just give up and use a period instead.
Semicolons can trip up even the most seasoned of writers. Even if you can recite the rule, the mere sight of a just-typed or just-scrawled semicolon has the ability to send a scribe into a vortex of grammatical second-guessing, and that’s not a place any of us want to be. Let us lend you a hand; we’ll put that punctuation panic to rest once and for all. Read on for a primer in using semicolons judiciously.
When to Use a Semicolon
This particular punctuation mark is used to join two independent clauses (i.e. two complete sentences that can stand alone). For example, you could join the two sentences “I like ice cream,” and “Chocolate is my favorite,” with a semicolon. It would be written as “I like ice cream; chocolate is my favorite.” You can use a semicolon here because these two sentences are independent clauses, and they also contain related ideas.
A semicolon indicates a pause between the two independent-but-related ideas. In contrast, a comma would indicate a shorter pause, and a period would indicate a full stop. You should not use a semicolon along with a conjunction such as “and” or “but,” because the semicolon takes the place of the connective word.
There’s one additional use for semicolons: If you’re making a list and the components in the list include commas, you should use a semicolon to separate the list’s larger components. For example, “On vacation, we traveled to Berlin, Germany; London, England; and Oslo, Norway.”
Colon vs Semicolon
Colons and semicolons are not often interchangeable. A colon can be used at the end of an independent clause to introduce a list. Often, what follows a colon is a listing of multiple items (or places, people, things, actions, etc.). For example, “We traveled to several cities: Atlanta, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Charleston."
A colon can also be used in place of the phrases “it is,” “that is,” and “they are” in order to connect two sentences in which the second summarizes, explains, or expands upon the first. For example, “Life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get.”
1. They told us tales from their travels; their adventures made for exciting bedtime stories.
2. The dog ran down the street; he caught a glimpse of a retreating postal truck.
3. We plan to read several classic books over the summer: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
With some practice, that habit of second-guessing semicolons—or avoiding them altogether—will be a thing of the past. For more grammatical rules, tips, and tricks, read 7 Grammatical Mistakes You Might Be Making and test your knowledge with the article If You Can Spot All 13 Grammar Mistakes in This Letter You’re Probably an English Teacher.
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What grammar and usage questions do you find yourself constantly asking? Leave a comment letting us know which rules you need help remembering.