Online Writing Lab

Semicolon Use

Most writers think of semicolons as strong commas, when in reality they are more like weak periods.  Semicolons are used when separating two independent clauses. (More on independent clauses)

Since semicolons serve the same role as periods, why use one over the other?  Generally, a semicolon should be used anytime a conjunctive adverb is used (however, therefore, nevertheless, moreover, consequently, etc.); the use of these conjunctive adverbs shows an inherent connection between the two independent clauses. 

Examples:

  • Receiving a college education can lead to a higher paying career; however, a college education is often expensive. 
  • Receiving a college education can lead to a higher paying career; consequently, those who complete a degree program usually make more money over the course of their professional careers.

Semicolons should also be used between independent clauses with no linking words, especially if the first independent clause leads to the second.
Examples:

  • Instead of devoting a lot of time to my essay, I wrote it all the night before it was due; the essay received a low grade.
  • Heavy traffic kept us from driving as far as we wanted; we decided to stop for the night.

While not as frequent, semicolons should also be used to separate lists that contain additional information.  (In other words, if there are nonrestrictive clauses in a list, use a semicolon.)
Examples:

  • At the store I purchased several items: milk, which I always buy; fruit, which I get when it is fresh; and steak, which happened to be on sale.
  • The people at John’s party included Tom, who is John’s best friend; Sarah, John’s girlfriend; Becky, Sarah’s roommate; and Mark and Suzan, John’s next door neighbors.

Note:  Unlike the use of a period, the beginning letter of the word following a semicolon should not be capitalized.