How do you use a semicolon?

From LitWiki

Proper Usage

  • The semicolon is used to separate major sentence elements of equal grammatical lengths (Hacker 250).
  • A semicolon connects independent clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction (Glenn 227).
    • Two related independent clauses in one sentence can be linked with a semicolon, but they are usually connected with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) (Glenn 226).
    • The conjunction expresses the relation between the clauses.
      • If the relation is clear without the conjunction, a writer may choose to connect the clauses with a semicolon instead. (Hacker 251)
"Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice." - H.L.Mencken
  • A semicolon must be used whenever a coordinating conjunction has been omitted between independent clauses.
    • If a comma is used instead of a semicolon, it creates a kind of run-on sentence called a comma splice. (Hacker 251)
      • In 1800, a traveler needed six weeks to get from New York City to Chicago; in 1860, the trip by railroad took two days (Hacker 251).
  • Use a semicolon between independent clauses linked with a transitional expression (Hacker 251).
    • Transitional expressions consist of conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases (Hacker 251).
Conjunctive Adverbs
accordingly, also, anyway, besides, certainly, consequently, conversely, finally, furthermore, hence, however, incidentally, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, next, nonetheless, otherwise, similarly, specifically, still, subsequently, then, therefore, thus (Hacker 251).
Transitional Phrases
after all, as a matter fact, as a result, at any rate, at the same time, even so, for example, for instance, in addition, in conclusion, in fact, in other words, in the first place, on the contrary, on the other hand (Hacker 252).
  1. When a transitional expression appears between two independent clauses, it is preceded by a semicolon and often followed by a comma (Hacker 252).
    1. Many corals grow very gradually; in fact, the creation of a coral reef can take centuries (Hacker 252).
  2. If a transitional expression appears in the middle or at the end of the second independent clause, then the semicolon goes between the clauses (Hacker 252).
    1. Most singers gain fame through hard work and dedication; Evita, however, found other means (Hacker 252).
  3. Use a semicolon to separate elements that themselves contain commas (Glenn 229).
    1. Classic science fiction sagas are Star Trek, with Mr. Spock and his large pointed ears; Battlestar Galactica, with its Cylon Raiders; and Star Wars, with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader (Hacker 252).
      1. Without the use of semicolons, the reader has to sort out the major groupings to distinguish between important and less important pauses, based on the logic of the sentence (Hacker 252).
      2. By utilizing semicolons at the main breaks, the writer does the work for the reader (Hacker 252).

Common Misuse of the Semicolon

Avoid using a semicolon in the following situations.

  1. Between a subordinate clause and the rest of the sentence (Hacker 253)
    1. Incorrect: Unless you brush your teeth within ten or fifteen minutes after eating; brushing does almost no good (Hacker 253).
    2. Correct: Unless you brush your teeth within ten or fifteen minutes after eating, brushing does almost no good (Hacker 253).
  2. Between an appositive and the word it refers to (Hacker 253)
    1. Incorrect: The scientists were fascinated by the species Argyroneta acquatica; a spider that lives underwater (Hacker 253).
    2. Correct: The scientists were fasicinated by the species Argyroneta acquatica, a spider that lives underwater (Hacker 253).
  3. To introduce a list (Hacker 253)
    1. Incorrect: Some of my favorite film stars have home pages on the Web; John Travolta, Susan Sarandon, and Loenardo DiCaprio (Hacker 253).
    2. Correct: Some of my favorite film stars have home pages on the Web: John Travolta, Susan Sarando, and Leonardo DiCaprio (Hacker 253).
  4. Between independent clauses joined by and, but, or, nor, for, so or yet (Hacker 253)
    1. Incorrect: Five of the applicants had worked with spreadsheets; but only one was familiar with database management (Hacker 253).
    2. Correct: Five of the applicants had worked with spreadsheets, but only one was familiar with database management (Hacker 253).


  1. If one of the independent clauses contains internal punctuation, use a semicolon even though the clauses are joined with a coordinating conjunction (Hacker 253).
    1. As a vehicle (the model T) was hard-working, commonplace, and heroic; and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the person who rode in it. -E. B. White
    2. Although a comma would also be correct in this sentence, the semicolon is more effective, for it indicates the relative weights of the pauses (Hacker 253).
  2. Occasionally, a semicolon may be used to emphasize a sharp contrast or a firm distinction between clauses joined with a coordinating conjunction (Hacker 253).
    1. "We hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them." -Charles Caleb Colton


Works Cited

Glenn, Cheryl, Robert K. Miller, Suzanne S. Webb, and Loretta Gray. Hodges' Harbrace Handbook. Boston: Thomsom/Wadsworth, 2004. Hacker, Diana. A Writer's Reference. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.