What are the rules for correctly using semicolons?
This is the third and final lesson about Colons and Semicolons. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Focus specifically on using semicolons in English
– Explore the five functions of semicolons as a punctuation mark
– Discuss any related rules and common errors when using semicolons
In Lesson 1 of this short course on colons and semicolons, we introduced some basic definitions of these punctuation marks and outlined their fifteen most useful functions, focussing in Lesson 2 on colons in particular. This third and final lesson now specifically explores semicolons, identifying the rules that must be followed by a writer if accuracy and grammaticality are important. After discussing the most relevant rules for each of the five semicolon functions, a brief outline of the most common mistakes when using this symbol will also be provided:
Function 1: Connecting Two Independent Clauses
While both colons and semicolons may be used to join two independent clauses instead of a comma and conjunction (such as ‘and’), this should only be done with a semicolon if the second clause is closely related in theme or content to the first:
As can be seen in the above examples, the two clauses ‘I wanted to study a language’ and ‘I chose Spanish’ are both independent in nature because they can stand alone as complete sentences. The semicolon in this example has been used to provide a stronger connection between the person wanting to study a language and the language that was chosen. It’s important to remember that when using semicolons in this way, the first rule is to never use this punctuation mark to combine more than two clauses. The second rule is to make sure that the two independent clauses you’ve joined are both closely related, and the third is to be certain that you’re not using a semicolon to connect an independent with a dependent clause. Break any of these rules and your sentence would be ungrammatical, as in the following:
Of course, an alternative way of joining two independent clauses such as those previously exemplified would be to use a comma (,) and a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and’ or ‘but’ (which should almost never be used in combination with a semicolon). The reason to instead choose a semicolon may be stylistic, altering the length of pause between the ideas or their connection strength:
Function 2: Introducing a Serial List
While colons may be used to introduce bullet-pointed or numbered lists, or those that follow an independent clause, semicolons are instead used to introduce serial lists. Serial lists are a type of list that already contain commas but require another element of punctuation to separate and clarify their items:
Although semicolons are not normally present alongside conjunctions such as ‘and’, we can see in the above example that both items are used when introducing the final item in a serial list (; and Caracas, Venezuela).
The reason semicolons are used here alongside commas and conjunctions is because the use of commas alone would be somewhat unclear for the reader. In the following expression, which uses only commas, it’s unclear for example which names are cities and which are countries:
When listing citations in this way, the most important rule to remember is that each source should be organised chronologically first (from oldest to newest) and alphabetically second (if the years of publication are identical).
Function 4: Using Conjunctive Adverbs
One easy-to-remember rule about semicolons is that they should always be used when joining two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb, such as ‘however’:
Please note however that because conjunctive adverbs (such as those provided in the following list) may be used in other parts of a sentence, the only time you must remember to use a semicolon before words such as ‘however’ or ‘therefore’ is when they are placed between two independent clauses as in the above example. It would be ungrammatical to use a semicolon before a conjunctive adverb at any other time.
A list of some of the most common connective phrases has been provided for your reference below:
What are some common semicolon mistakes?
In addition to the rules associated with the above five functions, we’ve also highlighted three common and more general mistakes that students should avoid.
a) Using a semicolon and a coordinating conjunction
Aside from when creating serial lists (as in Function 2), semicolons should never be used with coordinating conjunctions like ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘so’. The following sentence would therefore be considered ungrammatical:
b) Using a colon instead of a semicolon
Because two independent clauses may be joined with either a colon or a semicolon, knowing when to choose which can be somewhat confusing. The rule of thumb here is that semicolons are used to connect two independent clauses which are related but aren’t necessarily sequential in thought. Colons, however, are for connecting more sequential propositions – with the second clause amplifying, explaining, paraphrasing or summarising the first.
c) Capitalising the first letter after a semicolon
Finally, because the first letter following a colon may sometimes be capitalised, students have a tendency to overextend this capitalisation rule to semicolons. However, the first letter following a semicolon should never be capitalised, not unless that word is the first-person pronoun ‘I’ or a proper noun such as ‘James’, ‘the Sun’ or ‘New York’.
Well done on completing this short course about colons and semicolons. You may now wish to access and complete our supportive materials to check your understanding, or you may wish to begin studying another topic – perhaps also about sentence punctuation. Either way, best of luck with your academic studies.
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