How do I use semicolons?

The semicolon is a really powerful punctuation mark. If you get it right you will impress those reading your work as well as being able to express your ideas and opinions in a more subtle way.

The semicolon is pretty easy to figure out once it has been explained. Here are a couple of situations where the semicolon is used


In lists where the items themselves have commas.

The semicolon is used to clarify a complicated list containing many items, many of which contain commas themselves. Have a look at this example:

School dinner for today is a choice between fish, chips, peas, sausage, egg, beans, sauté potatoes, beef pie, mashed potatoes, mushy peas, gravy, pasta, garlic bread, salad.

You can probably work out what each individual option is if you sit down and think about it but using semicolons to separate the choices does the job really well:

School dinner for today is a choice between fish, chips and peas; sausage, egg, beans, sauté potatoes; beef pie, mashed potatoes, mushy peas, gravy; pasta, garlic bread, salad.

Test your understanding of punctuating lists with this exercise.


Separating closely-related independent clauses.

The semicolon is also used to connect two closely-related independent clauses. Have a look at this example:

Peter could not go to the cinema; he had spent his pocket money on sweets.

The semicolon links the two clauses suggesting that there is a link between spending the money and not going.

They could have been separated by a full stop:

Peter could not go to the cinema. He had spent his pocket money on sweets.

They could have been connected by a conjunction:

Peter could not go to the cinema because he had spent his pocket money on sweets.

Peter could not go to the cinema as he had spent his pocket money on sweets.

In the last examples we have changed the second clause into a dependent clause; it is directly dependent on the first clause.

If you are going to use a semicolon to connect two clauses, it is very important that the two clauses are both independent. This means that each clause has to be able to stand alone and make complete sense as a separate sentence, without the other. If either one cannot stand alone, a semicolon can not be used.

This Youtube video By Emma Bryce may prove useful (remember that the US calls a ‘full stop’ a ‘period’).