When to use a semicolon

Ah, the semicolon; it’s the most misunderstood punctuation mark. Some say it’s pretentious; others value its precision. Some uses of the semicolon are non-negotiable; others are stylistic choices. Regardless, many people just don’t know how to use it properly.

Here, I’ve outlined a basic guide to using the semicolon; there are some other, very nuanced usages I won’t get into here.

When to use a semicolon

To separate items within a complex series

Use a semicolon when individual segments of a sentence contain material that also includes commas — that is, commas within other commas.

The notebook has a bright, crisp display; a slim, attractive outer bezel; and a speedy CPU.

The company has offices in four cities: Chicago; Nashville, Tennessee; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and San Francisco.

To link related independent clauses

Use a semicolon to separate two related independent clauses — that is, clauses that could otherwise stand on their own as sentences. Do NOT use a comma for this purpose; that is a comma splice. In these instances, the semicolon replaces a comma and its coordinating conjunction (e.g., but, and, or).

As always, Chipotle ran out of carnitas; I got chicken instead.

Don’t even try driving on I-95 right now; it’s a mess.

To create variety

This usage is stylistic; for example, it can help improve the flow of your writing if you have too many choppy sentences. In this usage, the semicolon replaces a period, not a comma.

First, go to Settings. Then, select Display. Tap Brightness; then drag the bar to 100 percent.

Where to place a semicolon with quotes

Semicolons go outside quotation marks except when the semicolon is part of the quote.

She likes “Star Trek”; he prefers “Star Wars.”

Mom said, “Finish your veggies if you want dessert; make sure to eat the broccoli.”

I know this isn’t exactly the sexiest topic, but I hope this clarifies some confusion surrounding this underappreciated punctuation mark!


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