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Using Semicolons

Semicolons are often misused in everyday writing, so here is a list of three simple rules which cover the vast majority of problems we see here in the IUP Writing Center.

As usual, if you have a question, give us a call or send an e-mail.

Rule

Use a semicolon between closely related independent clauses which are not joined by a coordinating conjunction. This rule means that semicolons are used between two complete sentences which are not already linked by words like and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet.

Example

For example, these two sentences—

  • I do not like to eat chocolate. Ice cream is my food of choice.

can be rewritten like this—

  • I do not like to eat chocolate; ice cream is my food of choice.

A semicolon works here because the sentences are closely related in meaning, and they are not joined by a coordinating conjunction.

Rule

Use a semicolon between independent clauses which are linked in meaning with a transitional word. This rule means that a writer may use semicolons between two complete sentences that are joined by transition words like however, meanwhile, next, similarly, therefore, for example, in addition, in conclusion, etc. This transitional word is often followed by a comma.

Example

For example, these two sentences—

  • I do not like to ride the bus. However, I ride it when I visit my sister.

can be rewritten like this—

  • I do not like to ride the bus; however, I ride it when I visit my sister.

A semicolon works here because the sentences are closely related in meaning. Note that it is not correct to use a comma instead of the semicolon.

Rule

Use a semicolon between items in a series containing internal punctuation. In other words, if you have a series, major groupings, or a list, then instead of using a comma each time, use a semicolon.

Example

For instance, look at this example—

  • 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.

This sentence can be also written like this—

  • 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.

The semicolons here are important because they clarify groupings within the sentence. By inserting semicolons between each major break, the writer makes it easier for the reader to see where one major groups ends and where the next one begins.

The information on this page was compiled by Chris Branchtti, Karen Geist, and Kelly Jean Norris.
It was adapted from: Hacker, D. (1998).
A Writer's Reference 4th edition. Bedford/St. Martin's. 

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