The semicolon is often misused because it’s often misunderstood. Is it like a comma? Is it like a period? Well, yes. Look at it. It’s clearly a period and a comma combined in one glorious piece of punctuation!
When do you use a semicolon?
There are only two ways to use a semicolon in a sentence:
- When separating two independent clauses
- When separating items in a complex list
Likewise, there are only two reasons to use a semicolon:
- To create variety
- To emphasize relatedness
Let’s look at the first instance: separating independent clauses.
An independent clause is a part of a sentence that can stand alone. Even if all other parts of the sentence are removed, an independent clause remains a complete thought. For example:
Harry rarely walked alone to practice.
A dependent clause depends on the rest of the sentence to make sense. If you have a dependent clause, you must have an independent clause as well. You separate independent and dependent clauses using a comma. For example:
Because he was the team captain, Harry rarely walked alone to practice.
But, what if you had two independent clauses? You could separate them with a period, since they’re both complete sentences:
Harry rarely walked alone to practice. He usually walked with Ron and Hermione.
This is grammatically correct. However, two things are happening here that a semicolon could improve.
First, you have two simple sentences. There is nothing wrong with a simple sentence, but too many simple sentences can get boring. For example:
Harry was the team captain. He rarely walked alone to practice. He usually walked with Ron and Hermione. They liked to talk about their classes. Hermione was smarter than the others.
If the flow of your writing is boring, your reader might stop reading. Using a semicolon is one way to add variety to your sentences.
Another issue is that we haven’t shown how these thoughts are related. Does Harry usually walk with Ron and Hermione to practice, or does he usually walk with them everywhere? It’s not clear. You could add more words to clarify this, or you could emphasize the relation by using a semicolon:
Harry rarely walked alone to practice; he usually walked with Ron and Hermione.
Here, our semicolon is taking the place of the period to add variety to our writing and to emphasize the relationship between our two clauses. We have two independent clauses that are so closely related that they shouldn’t be in their own sentences.
To use a semicolon correctly, it must be very clear to the reader how the two independent clauses are related.
For example, you wouldn’t write:
Harry rarely walked alone to practice; Draco didn’t like him.
How are these thoughts related? Does Harry not walk alone to practice because Draco doesn’t like him? Does Draco not like Harry because Harry rarely walks alone to practice? It’s not clear. Therefore, this would not be a good place to use a semicolon.
Let’s look at the second reason to use a semicolon: separating items in a complicated list.
Generally, you separate items in a list by using a comma:
Students at the school included Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Draco.
What do you do when items in your list contain a comma themselves? For example, let’s say we were writing about groups of students:
Some students always sat together, including
- Harry, Ron, and Hermione
- Draco, Vincent, and Gregory
- Dean and Seamus
If we used commas to separate these items in a sentence, the groupings would be totally lost:
Some students always sat together, including Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Draco, Vincent, and Greggory, and Dean and Seamus.
Instead, we can provide clarity by replacing commas with semicolons:
Some students always sat together, including Harry, Ron, and Hermione; Draco, Vincent, and Greggory; and Dean and Seamus.
That’s it! Those are the only two times to use a semicolon. It’s kind of like a comma and kind of like a period, but it does its own thing in its own special way.