Rules for Using Semicolons

Many people feel uneasy when it comes to semicolons. Never fear! You can proceed with confidence if you follow the simple rules below. 

(Note: It’s easier to understand semicolons if you know about main clauses.)

How to use a semicolon-part 1
Use a semicolon to separate related main clauses. The semicolon tells the reader that the information to follow is related to the information before the semicolon. For example: "There were many meat-eating dinosaurs; [semicolon] the T-rex was one of the largest." The second main clause elaborates on the first. Don't use a semicolon to separate related main clauses that are unrelated. This is confusing for the reader. For example: "Dinosaurs once ruled the earth; [semicolon] there are many delicious ways to prepare beets."

More Examples

I wish I had planted many kinds of vegetables in my garden; I’m getting really sick of beets.

The second main clause elaborates on why the gardener wishes he had planted a variety of vegetables, so a semicolon makes sense here.

My parents won’t let me get a pet T-rex; they would prefer a boring dog instead.

The second main clause explains the parents’ pet preferences, so the semicolon is an appropriate choice.

The second rule for using semicolons is essentially the same as the first; however, it adds a transition word and a comma. Read more below!

How to use a semicolon-part 2
Use a semicolon to separate related main clauses that are joined by a conjunctive adverb. Think of conjunctive adverbs as words you use to transition between ideas. Examples include however, moreover, nevertheless, instead, furthermore, and subsequently. For example: "The brachiosaurus wasn't short enough to ride the rollercoaster; [semicolon] however, she was tall enough to high five her friend as she sped by." Conjunctive adverbs indicate the relationship between the clauses. This can be comparison, contrast, cause and effect, or other kinds of relationships. For example: "Janine rode the rollercoaster 93 times that day; [semicolon] subsequently, she had a terrible case of motion sickness." Notice how the conjunctive adverb is always followed by a comma!

Between clauses, conjunctive adverbs can show many kinds of relationships: addition (adding more information), cause and effect, comparison, contrast, emphasis, result, and sequence.  

Examples

Marco has to wear a special bracelet before riding rollercoasters; otherwise, he gets too dizzy and has to take frequent breaks.

The conjunctive adverb otherwise shows a contrasting relationship between the first main clause (Marco wears a special bracelet) and the second main clause (Marco would get dizzy without the bracelet).

Leticia has an irrational fear of giraffes; therefore, she can never visit the safari section of the zoo.

The conjunctive adverb therefore shows that the information in the second clause (Leticia has limited access to the zoo) results from the information in the first clause (Leticia is frightened by giraffes).

Elise loves the go karts at the amusement park; certainly, she whips around the corners in a lime green Speedster 5000.

The conjunctive adverb certainly shows that the information in the second clause (Elise loves to drive quickly in the Speedster 5000) emphasizes the information in the first clause (Elise loves go karts).

Common Conjunctive Adverbs

accordinglyalsoanywaybesides
certainlyconsequentlyfinallyfurthermore
hencehoweverincidentallyindeed
insteadlikewisemeanwhilemoreover
namelyneverthelessnextnonetheless
nowotherwisesimilarlystill
thenthereforethusundoubtedly
How to use a semicolon-part 3
Use a semicolon to separate list items in a series when they contain commas. This prevents the list from becoming confusing to read. For example: "I've traveled to Frankfurt, Germany; [semicolon] Tokyo, Japan; [semicolon] Dodoma, Tanzania; [semicolon] and Minneapolis, Minnesota, but my pet pterosaur is nowhere to be found!" Without the semicolons, it wouldn't be clear that the speaker traveled to four places; it would look like she traveled to seven!
Some list items contain commas because they include descriptions. Use semicolons to keep these ideas clearly separated. For example: "I have many pet dinosaurs, including Veronica, the velociraptor; [semicolon] Stella, the stegosaurus; [semicolon] and Igantius, the iguanodon."

Want more practice punctuating sentences with semicolons? Complete the practice exercises in this video!


Semicolons Quiz

Ready to test your knowledge of semicolons? Take the semicolons quiz!


Punctuation