What is a semicolon?

A semicolon is a punctuation mark used to separate parts of a sentence, typically linking two complete ideas. It is considered stronger than a comma but weaker than a period, as it denotes a pause that is slightly longer than a comma, but shorter than the full stop indicated by a period.

What is a semicolon

Purpose of semicolons

The two main purposes of semicolons are to clarify a series in a sentence, and indicate two closely related sentences.

When providing a written list where individual elements contain a comma, the items should be separated using a semicolon. The use of a semicolon in this way is sometimes called a super-comma.

Ari was able to study abroad in main European cities such as Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; and Rome, Italy.

Purpose of a semicolon - clarify a series

Connecting two closely related independent clauses (a complete sentence containing a subject and verb) with a semicolon looks like this:

Jocelyn was sitting in the library; she was not reading anything.

The two independent clauses in the example above are:

  1. Jocelyn was sitting in the library.
  2. She was not reading anything.

Purpose of a semicolon - connecting two independent clauses

Table of Contents

  1. Definition
  2. Purpose
  3. When to use
  4. Examples

When to use a semicolon

Use semicolons under the following conditions:

Independent clauses – Semicolons are mostly used to separate independent clauses in a single compound sentence. The two independent clauses must be equally important for a semicolon to be justified.

  • Most people like to write using a computer; Mindy stills likes to use pen and paper.

Conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases – Use a semicolon when two independent clauses are connected by a conjunctive adverb (connecting words like therefore, consequently, furthermore, etc.) or transitional expression (for example, in other words, in addition, etc.).

  • Adverb: The Friday special is usually prime rib; however, it sold out early tonight.
  • Transition: John was caught cheating on his homework; as a result, he failed the assignment.

Items in a list or series: Add a semicolon when listing items containing internal punctuation.

  • When packing for camp, it is best to bring a sleeping bag, pillow, and pajamas for the overnight stay; boots, backpack, and water bottle for the hike; and bathing suit, goggles, and towel for swimming.

Semicolon vs. comma

Semicolons often take the place of a comma when additional commas can negatively impact the clarity of a sentence:

  • Comma: She bought bread, juice, and bacon at the grocers, plums, peaches, and pears from the farmers’ market.
  • Semicolon: She bought bread, juice, and bacon at the grocers; plums, peaches, and pears from the farmers’ market.

Semicolons also replace commas when linking independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction:

  • Comma: He painted the kitchen, but he still needs to paint the bedroom.
  • Semicolon: He painted the kitchen; he still needs to paint the bedroom.

Semicolon vs. comma

Semicolons should also be used to avoid a comma splice (using a comma to link two independent clauses, or separate sentences with related ideas).

  • Incorrect: They love cooking together, their favorite dish to make is paella.
  • Correct: They love cooking together; their favorite dish to make is paella.

Colon or semicolon

The primary use of a colon is to join independent clauses with a list, a noun, or a dependent clause, where semicolons link two independent clauses.

  • Colon: The teacher requires students to bring a few items to the first day of class: pocket folder, notebook, and flash drive.
  • Semicolon: The teacher requires students to bring a few items to the first day of class; they need a pocket folder, notebook, and flash drive.

Semicolon vs. colon

Semicolon examples

How to correctly use a semicolon in a sentence:

Semicolon in a sentence
Use Example sentence
Independent clauses Maria scored the highest on the quiz; Lois scored the second highest.
Conjunctive adverbs/Transitional phrases All of the cast and crew of the play received a standing ovation; after all, they've earned it!
Items in a list/series The participants mainly traveled from Pittsburgh, PA; Akron, OH; and Buffalo, NY.

Learn about other types of punctuation like hyphens, parentheses, and quotation marks.

What you learned:

After working your way through this lesson and video, you have learned:

  • What a semicolon is
  • The purpose of a semicolon
  • When to use a semicolon
  • How semicolons compare to commas and colons
Instructor: Malcolm M.
Malcolm has a Master's Degree in education and holds four teaching certificates. He has been a public school teacher for 27 years, including 15 years as a mathematics teacher.

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