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

Lesson 3

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:

Function 3: Separating Citations

Particularly useful when using referencing in academic assignments is that semicolons can also be used to separate a series of citations in a multiple-source citation. The example below demonstrates how semicolons are able to clearly separate one source from another:

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.

Function 5: Using Connective Phrases

Finally, and much like in Function 4, semicolons may also be used before certain connective phrases that are placed between two independent clauses:

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. 

3 of 3 Lessons Completed

Materials

Once you’ve completed all three lessons about colons and semicolons, you might also wish to download our beginner, intermediate and advanced worksheets to test your progress or print for your students. These professional PDF worksheets can be easily accessed for only a few Academic Marks.

Our colons and semicolons guidance sheet (including all three lessons about this topic) can be accessed here at the click of a button.

Gain unlimited access to our colons and semicolons beginner worksheet, with activities and answer keys designed to check a basic understanding of this topic’s lessons.

To check a confident understanding of this topic’s lessons, click on the button below to download our colons and semicolons intermediate worksheet with activities and answer keys.

Our colons and semicolons advanced worksheet with activities and answer keys has been created to check a sophisticated understanding of this topic’s lessons. 

To save yourself 5 Marks, click on the button below to gain unlimited access to all of our colons and semicolons guidance and worksheets. The All-in-1 Pack includes every lesson on this topic, as well as our beginner, intermediate and advanced worksheets in one handy PDF.

Media

You may also wish to download any relevant PowerPoint activities, teacher resources or audio and video recordings we’ve created about this topic for only a few Academic Marks.

Click on the button below to gain unlimited access to our colons and semicolons teacher’s PowerPoint, which should include everything you’d need to successfully introduce this topic.

Feedback

Would you like to receive 10 more Academic Marks to unlock our content? Community feedback is very important to Academic Marker, so if there’s something you like about our materials or an aspect that could be improved, please complete the form below (or get in touch at [email protected]) and we’ll credit your account to say thanks.

Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on reddit
Share on email

Wish to say ‘thanks’ for these free materials? Share academicmarker.com with your fellow students, tutors, colleagues and classmates 🙌.