How to Use Semicolons: A Simple Guide

I have found that some forms of punctuation appear to be an unfathomable mystery to a lot of people, and for some reason, semicolons are the worst offender. I have seen comments on Reddit along the lines of ‘I have no idea how to use semicolons so I generally just stick one in a sentence and hope it’s right’, and in my experience this appears to be a general rule.

An important thing to remember is that semicolons aren’t scary or mysterious; once you know the rules, they are very easy to use, and they are a great way to make your writing smoother or more sophisticated.

A semicolon should join two independent but related clauses. An independent clause is a part of a sentence that can stand on its own and still make sense, because it contains both a subject and a predicate. A dependent clause, on the other hand, does not express a complete thought. It’s fairly easy to check whether a clause is dependent, as it usually sounds wrong or incomplete on its own.

Some independent clauses:

Emma likes to write.
I have never heard of a semicolon.
This is a terrible grammar guide.

Some dependent clauses:

But she doesn’t always write well.
And I think it sounds ridiculous.
Which explains nothing.

In order to use a semicolon correctly, the two clauses need to be both independent and related. For example, two related, independent clauses might be ‘I saw a beautiful car’ and ‘It was my favourite colour’. Because both of these refer to the same topic, the car, it makes sense to put them in a sentence together: ‘I saw a beautiful car; it was my favourite colour’. On the other hand, ‘I saw a beautiful car’ and ‘I love beans’ are totally unrelated topics, so you couldn’t use a semicolon to join them, even though they are both independent clauses.

From what I’ve seen, the most common misuse of a semicolon is to confuse it with a comma. When you use a comma where you should use a semicolon, you end up with a comma splice – two independent clauses joined together. Some example of comma splices:

I saw Ella today, she looked amazing.
We never drive when we can walk, it saves petrol.
She sighed, the view was beautiful.

Comma splices can be fixed in several ways. Different punctuation can be substituted for the comma, or extra words can be added in. All the sentences below are correct, and could be used depending on the effect you are going for, your preferences, and your writing style.

I saw Ella today – she looked amazing.
I saw Ella today; she looked amazing.
I saw Ella today: she looked amazing.
I saw Ella today. She looked amazing.
I saw Ella today… she looked amazing.
Today I saw Ella, who looked amazing.

When you use a semicolon where you should use a comma to join an independent and a dependent clause, it’s equally incorrect.

She smiled; and sat down.
His face was turned to mine; illuminated by the setting sun.
They talked all night; so happy in each other’s company.

These can be fixed by either changing the semicolon to a comma (which I usually prefer, as it tends to be more concise), or adding a couple of extra words.

His face was turned to mine, illuminated by the setting sun.
His face was turned to mine; it was illuminated by the setting sun.

Quick check

If you aren’t sure whether a semicolon is being used correctly, the quickest way is simply to take it out and see whether you can make it into two complete sentences. Taking a couple of my examples:

‘I saw Ella today’ and ‘She looked amazing’ work on their own, so a semicolon is necessary to join them.

‘They talked all night’ works on its own, but ‘So happy in each other’s company’ doesn’t, so a comma is needed.

Note that semicolons can also be used in lists, e.g.:

He had brought plenty of food; sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes, biscuits, and some lemonade.
We have three competitors: Anna, from England; Jean, from France; and Marta, from Spain.

However, I tend to find that it’s the alternative uses which confuse people the most, and this brief guide aims to demystify the Dreaded Semicolon for anyone who wants to use it more often.

Image by David Goehring

Leave a comment