A semicolon is not as frequently used as other punctuation marks such as commas and full stops. However, it can be a very useful addition to your grammar ‘tool kit’ and make your documents easier to read.
The first concept to understand is when to use a semicolon instead of other punctuation or words.
A semicolon emphasizes a break in the sentence that is more significant (a longer break) than that associated with a comma, but not something that denotes the complete end of a sentence, which would be a full stop.
When thinking about when to use a semicolon, it is useful to think about how the two parts of the sentence that are separated by the semicolon relate. Most of the time the two parts of the sentence could be grammatically correct sentences on their own, but the second part is related to the first part in a direct or important way.
Example sentences that Include a Semicolon
- My partner drove to Los Angeles this morning; I decided to stay at home.
- You should come into the shade; your skin may be burnt otherwise.
- I have only just eaten lunch; I am hungry again though.
- Some people say that this room is the living room; I call it the lounge.
As you can see, the two parts of the sentence could be individual sentences in their own right but the semicolon (;) splits the sentences in a way that reads correctly but emphasizes to the reader the relationship between the two sections of the sentence.
Sometimes a word could be used instead of a semicolon, for example ‘My partner drove to Los Angeles this morning but I decided to stay at home’. The use of ‘but’ here is correct, but the use of a semicolon may make the reading ease better or may emphasize the point of the relationship between the two sections of the sentence more clearly.
The choice of when to use a semicolon can often depend on the sentences before and after the sentence that you intend to use the semicolon in.
The use of a Semicolon in a List
As well as in sentences, a semicolon (;) is often correctly used to separate items in a list. This is often when the items of the list are in a continuous format (rather than each list item being on a new line), or when the items in the list are several words, or phrases, that may include other punctuation such as a comma (,).
The use of a semicolon to separate items in a list is often seen in medical or pharmaceutical textbooks. For example, when separating lists of uses, cautions, or side effects associated with a particular medicine.
See our section on the Flesch Reading Ease and other tools for determining the readability of your work.