How to use a semicolon

May 6, 2014

Dear Freelance Editor,

I’m a freelance designer who uses a lot of typography, and I’m currently making some wallpaper designs out of semicolons. Now I see them everywhere and I can’t sleep until I know how to use them properly. Please help!


Dotted n’ Dashy

Dear D&D,

Don’t feel lost -- knowing when to properly use a semicolon is confusing even for grammar aficionados.

Semicolons are basically used to combine independent clauses -- ideas that could stand alone as their own sentences but are stronger when they are together. When a semicolon is used, it creates a pause in the sentence, but not as much as a period. Semicolons are used the most often with complex sentences, which is why you might see it more in highbrow literature or academic texts.

You can use a semicolon to link independent clauses that are about closely related ideas.

This is the most common way to use a semicolon. If you have two sentences that are closely related or contrasting, you can combine them with a semicolon to add emphasis to their relationship. You don’t need to use a coordinating conjunction such as “and”, “or”, or “because”.

Example: “Bunnicula is the healthiest rabbit ever; he is always on a juice cleanse.”

Use a semicolon to join two main clauses that require a transitional phrase such as “however,” “for example,” “on the other hand,” or “therefore”.

“Peeta didn’t usually spend a lot of money on the ladies; however, he gave Katniss a pearl like it was no big deal.”

The semicolon can also help you separate items in a complex list, or a list of items that contain commas.

There are times when lists begin to get confusing, especially when they are lists of items with commas. Use a semicolon to keep things clear.

“The tiny hamster ate tiny burritos in Cleveland, Ohio; Tokyo, Japan; and Brooklyn, New York.”

“The contestants in today’s race will include Mario on a motorized scooter; Luigi riding a 2014 Lamborghini; Princess Toadstool on a BMX bicycle; and Yoshi riding a duck.”

If you are joining complex clauses that are very complex or lengthy, use a coordinating conjunction to create more separation.

Most of the time, you shouldn’t use a coordinating conjunction (“and”, “or”, “but,” etc.) with a semicolon. However, if you are joining two complex sentences with multiple clauses inside them, using a coordinating conjunction can help add clarity.

"A thoroughly complex character, the Big Bad Wolf had a reputation among the pigs for destroying houses; but much to everyone’s surprise, he also volunteered at Habitats for Humanities during the summer."