How to Use a Semi-colon (Punctuation)

The rules for using a semi-colon are fairly easy to understand. Let me quickly explain when and how to use a semi-colon.

How to use a semi-colon

When to Use a Semi-colon

A semi-colon should join two sentences that are related. This usually means they are about the same topic.

Examples:

  • Water is important; we cannot live without it. (Both sentences are about water.)
  • John didn’t have any money; neither did I. (Both sentences are about the lack of money.)
  • There was no other way to get home; we had to walk. (Both are about the same problem.)

As you can see, you should not use a capital letter in the first word after a semi-colon.

How to Use a Semi-colon

A semi-colon joins two complete sentences. It function in the same way as a period. Anytime you can use a period, you can also use a semi-colon (but you should only do so if the ideas are closely related).

This isn’t as easy as it sounds though because you need to be able to identify what a complete sentences is. Briefly, a sentence always has an independent clause (IC), and sometimes it can have one (or more) dependent clauses (DC) (also known as subordinate clauses). Here are some examples of structures:

Correct Examples:

IC ; IC. (two Simple sentences joined with a semi-colon)

She was right; I wasn’t prepared.

IC + DC ; IC. (a Complex sentence and a Simple sentence joined by a semi-colon)

I like to sing when I take a shower; it’s my favourite part of the day.

Incorrect Examples:

DC ; IC

Because I was feeling unwell; I stayed home.

IC ; DC

You can join us; if you want to.

The first example should be joined by a comma, not a semi-colon. The second does not need punctuation. Again, a semi-colon can only join independent clauses or complete sentences. The clauses “Because I was feeling unwell” and “if you want to” are dependent clauses (subordinate clauses). They are not complete sentences because they do not express a complete thought.

In summary, use semi-colons between two complete sentences (complete thoughts) that are closely related.

  • This is a complete sentence; this is also a complete sentence. (IC; IC = correct)
  • This sentence is is a complete thought because you can completely understand it; therefore, you can use a semi-colon after it.  (IC DC; IC = correct)
  • If you have a question; ask me below (incorrect because ‘if you have a question’ is not a complete sentence)

My Advice: Use Semi-colons Sparingly

This means to not use them in every sentence, paragraph, or e-mail. I use one semi-colon a week. I think that’s about right. Some people think that the only purpose of a semi-colon is to show off to your reader. They may be right. Using a period between sentences the standard.

I hope this has been helpful. Feel free to ask a question below.

— Matthew Barton / Creator of Englishcurrent.com

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