Semicolons and How to Use Them

A semicolon (;) is the punctuation mark used to connect independent clauses, indicating a closer relationship than does a period.

The rules are pretty simple, though they can be confusing to some.  As the above definition shows, semicolons are used inside one sentence, to connect closely related independent clauses.  The 1983 Guinness Book of World Records names the 1,288 word sentence in William Faulkner’s  Absolom, Absolom as “the longest sentence in literature”.

The most common misuse I’ve seen is people using them to connect totally unrelated clauses or sentences.  Something like this would be wrong:
The cat ate a mouse; a car turned in the driveway.

A correct example is the following sentence:
Some people write with a word processor; others write with a pen or pencil.
(example from The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin)

Semicolons are used to separate items in a series, such as:
This conference has people who have come from Boise, Idaho; Los Angeles, California; and Nashville, Tennessee.
(example from GrammarBook.com)

Here are some more links that give examples of correct usage:
http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/marks/semicolon.htm
http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon
http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/how-to-use-semicolons.aspx

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6 comments on “Semicolons and How to Use Them

  1. Useful info, Tina. Thanks.

    • Thanks Joy,
      I know semicolons and commas are easy to misuse, so I thought this post might come in handy. Especially after someone recently got snarky with me, arguing that one sentence which included a semicolon counted as two sentences. 😛 I’d hate to be her editor. 🙂

  2. Loved the examples. I’m fortunate that, as an English teacher, I’m exposed to grammar all the time. Still, reminders are great.

  3. laurenwaters says:

    This is the one thing I still struggled with even after trying to drive it home countless times. I might actually understand it now! Thanks!

    PS- I’ve tagged you over on my blog 🙂

  4. Thanks Tina, this is really useful. I’ve been trying to encourage more people to use the semicolon in my school, and a lot of students are starting to take more notice of it now.

  5. Pete Denton says:

    These types of reminders are always useful. The more you read them the more likely they are to sinking in and becoming second nature, thank for sharing.

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