When To Use A Semi-Colon


General Rule

two semi-colons

The semi-colon joins and separates equal parts.

The semi-colon is stronger than a comma and not as final as a period. When used to join separate items, it indicates there’s a relationship between the parts; when used to separate items, it indicates where each item begins and ends.

The general rule for semi-colons is to link equal parts. Use semi-colons to join two or more independent clauses, or to separate two or more dependent clauses.


A semi-colon joins two independent clauses; this punctuation links the two ideas. [This example shows a semi-colon joining two independent clauses.] You can use a semi-colon to join two closely related independent clauses with a semi-colon instead of using a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, or yet). This is an economic method of showing relationship without words.

A semi-colon separates items in a series where the items themselves contain commas:

Three of my favorite writers are: Jane Austen, an early nineteenth-century British novelist; John McPhee, a twentieth-century American credited with inventing creative non-fiction; and J.M. Coetzee, recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003.

Of course, these are just three of my favorite authors. Others include Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare, and whomever I’m reading at the moment. Recently, that would include Hope Jahren, Lab Girl; Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply; and Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk.

Further Reading About Punctuation

Here are links to previous posts about punctuation you may find helpful toward writing with clarity and grace:

A Brief Guide to Narrative Navigation

A Sentence is a Complete Thought

Punctuation Changes Meaning

My Writing Bible

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living in Place

22 thoughts on “When To Use A Semi-Colon

  1. Pingback: When To Use A Semi-Colon — Live to Write – Write to Live | katierdillon

  2. Is it strange to be intimidated by semi-colons? Because I sure am. I put them in my writing and then get nervous about them. I only confidently use them in the list situation. But perhaps this will help. Thanks!

    • No, not strange to be intimidated by semi-colons – and easy to overcome that anxiety. Check out the link at the end about what makes a sentence. Once you learn the difference between an dependent and independent clause, you’re well on your way to punctuation nirvana. With those two building blocks, you can write simple, compound, complex, compound-complex and periodic sentences filled with grace and style. Really.

  3. Thanks Deborah, you put it so simply, and much clearer. We all want to write better, but it is a lot harder than most people imagine. I always used to laugh when I found a mistake in books I read, now I understand how much writers agonize over them I have a more forgiving nature.
    Thanks again.

    • The examples are embedded in the post. If you still don’t understand, please review the parts of the sentence. There’s a link at the end of the post that will direct you there. You need to know what a clause is, and the difference between a dependent clause and an independent clause, in order to use a semi-colon – or a comma or a period, for that matter – correctly.

  4. Pingback: A Review of Clauses and Conjunctions | Live to Write – Write to Live

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