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How to use a semicolon correctly

If you’ve clicked on this article, it is because you, like any other human being, are perplexed by the infamous semicolon. For decades, students and teachers alike have debated over the correct placing of this dreaded punctuation mark. Is it a colon? A comma? A full stop? Perhaps all three? Is it even necessary at all? How can we know with utter certainty where to place it? Well, fear not, for this blog post holds the answers. By the time you’ve finished with this page, you’ll be a semicolon pro. You’ll be inserting semicolons into your essays, your creative writing, heck, even your text messages (yes, I’m sorry to tell you: you’re going to be that friend).

Semicolons are not interchangeable with commas, colons, nor full stops. They have a very specific purpose. I know you are on the edge of your seat, tickled with anticipation, so I'll jump straight to it.

There are two key uses for a semicolon. The first is in what we call a “complex” list. This refers to a list for which each item has more than one element to it. Alternatively, a “simple” list would involve naming people or things alone.

A simple list:

“The guest list for tomorrow includes the following people: Jenny, Ryan, Paul, Alex and Lisa.”

We can turn this into a “complex” list by adding an element to each person. This could be their age (“Jenny, aged 21”), their country of origin (“Jenny, from Italy”), their profession (“Jenny, the teacher”) and so on. If we did this for all five people, we would use a semicolon to separate them.

A complex list:

“The guest list for tomorrow includes the following people: Jenny, the teacher; Ryan, the construction worker; Paul, the chef; Alex, the policeman; and Lisa, the accountant.”

This is the first, and most straight-forward, use of a semicolon. Now we’ll dive a little deeper, so pay attention.

The second use of a semicolon is to join two closely related independent clauses. Don’t worry; I’m going to explain this. Please don't run away just yet.

An independent clause is a stand-alone sentence, or part of a sentence, that makes complete sense by itself. A dependent clause is a part of a sentence that relies on another part of the sentence in order to make sense.

Examples of independent clauses:

“I like going to the gym”

“I need to buy a new phone”

“I like to play with the birds”

Examples of dependent clauses:

“But I can’t today”

“Because my old one broke”

“When I go to the beach”

Do you see how all three of these dependent clauses don't make sense by themselves, and rely on a little bit more information in order to make sense? On the other hand, all of the given independent clauses make sense by themselves.

Let’s join them together to give the dependent clauses the information that they need.

“I like to go to the gym, but I can’t today.”

“I need to buy a new phone, because my old one broke.”

“When I go to the beach, I like to play with the birds.”

We have created three coherent sentences here, but can still clearly identify the independent clauses from the dependent clauses.

You will note that I used a comma to join all three of these sentences. A comma is used to join an independent clause to a dependent clause.

Now, a semicolon is used to join two independent clauses. That is its role. For instance:

“I need to go to the gym; I haven’t worked out lately.”

“I need to buy a new phone; my old phone broke yesterday.”

“I like going to the beach; it is fun to play with the birds.”

I have changed the wording of our previous examples to create 6 independent clauses, which I have joined accordingly. If you look at each of the above 6 clauses, you'll note that they make sense by themselves. They are independent. Just as you will be one day when you are an adult, live alone and are no longer dependent on your parents.

But can we use a semicolon to join just any old independent clauses? I'm glad you asked. Because no.

Specifically, a semicolon is used to join two independent clauses that relate to one another.

Take note of the following two examples, both of which are grammatically correct. Yet, one works, but the other doesn’t:

  1. “I am excited for the holidays; I will be going to Melbourne.”

  2. “I am excited for the holidays; dogs love to bark.”

See how the second example does not work as well as the first? This is because a semicolon is used to join two independent clauses for the very purpose of establishing their relationality. We could just as easily put a full stop in the place of either of the above semicolons, but the semicolon creates a distinct relationship between the sentences, rather than leaving them as stand-alone sentences that may or may not relate to one another. This is the magic of the semicolon! You can use it to create a relationship between any two sentences! That’s right; I can practically hear you squealing with glee!

Pro tip: If you’re not sure whether or not to use a semicolon, try inserting a full stop in there and see if it works. A full stop and semicolon both work grammatically in the same place, but a semicolon creates a distinct relationship that a full stop does not.

Well, there you have it. You can now enjoy being that person who understands the correct use of a semicolon, which means you can now enjoy correcting both your friends and your teachers. You're welcome. Just remember that with great power comes great responsibility.

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