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Osceola Writing Center

Semicolons ;

Many people are confused about when to use commas, semicolons, or colons. However, after reading the information below, you will be a semicolon expert. (And semicolons are probably the easiest of the three to know when to use)

Is it a period...or a comma? It's both!

Semicolons are somewhere between a comma and a period when it comes to pauses. You can see that a semicolon ( ; ) is actually made of both of these punctuation marks. Sometimes you need a stronger punctuation mark than a comma, and other times you might need less strong of a break in thought than a period affords. Enter the semicolon.

 

When to Use Semicolons

1. To Connect Closely Related Independent Clauses

Most of the time when you see a semicolon, it will be connecting 2 independent clauses.

Example:

Nobody knows what happened to the inhabitants of Roanoke

;

it remains a mystery until this day

In order to know where to put a semicolon, you must first understand what an independent clause is:

An independent clause, in its most basic form, is a subject + a verb that can stand alone (if you put a period at the end, it's a complete sentence).

Make sure to remember that independent clauses can be as short as two words. It's not about the length of the sentence, but whether an appropriate subject and verb are present ("I eat." is technically a complete sentence).

So, how do you know if your independent clauses are "closely related"? Well, that's a little more subjective. However, if you are writing about the same subject, you more than likely could use a semicolon rather than a period. Do you have to? No, but think about the connections that you're trying to make in your writing- some things are stronger together than apart.

2. To Separate List Items that Have Other Punctuation Already

For basic lists we only need to use commas to separate the items:

Ex: I play the guitar, saxaphone, and piano.

If you have a list with items that already include commas, it could be confusing to also use commas to separate the items:

Confusing:

I sent the letter to John, the president of Costco, Tim, Best Buy's CEO, and Esther, CFO fo Dell.

Based on this construction, one might think that there are 5 people who received the letter rather than just three- 1) John, 2) Costco's president, 3) Tim, 4) Best Buy's CEO, and 5) Esther.

Clear:

I sent the letter to John, the president of Costco; Tim, Best Buy's CEO; and Esther, CFO for Dell.

Now I can see that the information that comes after the commas relates to a person's position/title and not to a separate person.

 

More Resources

The Oatmeal (Educational & Funny)

Smart English (Youtube Video)

Flash Grammar (Youtube Video)

 

Exercises

 

 
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