Semicolons are friends; don't fear them.

In the world of punctuation, semicolons are often feared. Students (and adults) don’t want to misuse the semicolon, so they opt out of ever including it in writing. I’ve had several students simply avoid the semicolon “because it’s scary.” You really don’t have to fear semicolons. Let’s demystify this piece of punctuation.

How do you use a semicolon? 

There are two ways we typically use semicolons in writing. 

Semicolon Use #1: I can use a semicolon to join two or more independent clauses (fancy grammar term for ideas complete with subject, verb, and completing info). These independent clauses should be related to one another in idea.  

Example: The California coastline offers many beautiful beaches; however, they can be very crowded in the summer. Beaches in the winter, though, have a quiet beauty about them; I like the feel of the cold sand under my bare feet.

In the example sentences above, on either side of each semicolon, we have complete ideas that are related in topic. Often on standardized tests, like the ACT and SAT, a semicolon is viewed as interchangeable with a period.

Semicolon Use #2: I can also use a semicolon within a complex list (one that already includes commas). 

Example: I would love to visit Yellowstone, in which wolves were reintroduced; Yosemite, where some of the world's most notable cliff-faces reside; the Grand Canyon, specifically when it is covered in snow. 

In the previous example sentence, if I used commas in place of the semicolons, the list could become very confusing. Semicolons in complex lists help separate the list elements and allow the sentence to retain its intended meaning.

Common Mistakes

An easy mistake is using a semicolon when you mean to use a colon. A colon is used when one side is further clarifying, expanding upon, or defining the other side of the sentence. We often correlate colons with lists. When using a colon, I need a complete thought on at least one side of the colon.

Incorrect Semicolon Use Example: My cousin visited many places; India, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

Incorrect Colon Use Example: My cousin visited: India, Hong Kong, and Thailand. 

Correct Colon Use Example: My cousin visited many places: India, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

In the previous example, I need a complete sentence prior to my list in order to use the colon. Unlike with a semicolon, a colon can separate an independent clause and just a phrase, a word, or a list as well as another independent clause.

Examples: Light filtered through the postcards on my window, casting colors onto my desk: warm hues of red, blue, and green. I stared at my favorite: my cousin had sent me a vivid red postcard from France. The red postcard was a depiction of a Mark Rothko painting: Untitled (Red).

An easy way to check if you are correctly using a semicolon is to ask yourself two questions:

  • Am I joining two complete, interrelated ideas on either side of the semicolon?

  • Am I writing a list that already uses commas?

For additional punctuation and grammar help, visit Pivots’ expert English tutors.

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