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How to use semicolons

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The humble semicolon is the subject of much controversy: there are people who don't think it's ever necessary to use a semicolon, and it's a punctuation mark that's often misused. However, when used correctly and sparingly, the semicolon can give your writing an air of sophistication.

Semicolons can be used to connect independent clauses (clauses that make sense on their own) that are not joined by a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet). The semicolon can be replaced by a full stop, or by a conjunction. Look at the following example:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

The semicolon in this example could be replaced by a full stop:

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Or, it could be replaced by a conjunction:

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.

A semicolon can also be used before a transition (connecting) word or phrase. The transition words you are probably most familiar with include however, therefore, hence, thus, consequently, nevertheless and meanwhile. Look at the following example:

It was the best of times; however, it was also the worst of times

It's important to remember that a semicolon can only ever be used to join independent clauses; for example, it would be wrong to write the following:

I took my suncream; as it was hot.

as it was hot is not an independent clause; it cannot stand alone as a sentence. It's perfectly possible to get away with never using a semicolon, and if you are unsure how to use them it's best to avoid them. However, a well-placed semicolon is always impressive!

Activity: Replacing semicolons with full stops - 5 minutes

1. In each of the sentences below, replace the semicolon with a full stop to create two independent clauses.

  • I like to read novels; you prefer to read poetry.
  • Nobody dared to speak; they all want to see what would happen next.
  • He was usually so careful; this time he slipped up.
  • I took my suncream; it looked like it was going to be a lovely day.
  • Dave drives a Ford; John drives a Ferrari.
  • London is the largest city in Britain; no where else has such an exciting atmosphere.
  • You can choose to buy the hardback; you may prefer to buy the paperback.
How did you do?

Once you have finished, you may check your answers below.

Activity: Replacing semicolons with conjunctions - 5 minutes

1. In each of the sentences below, replace the semicolon with an appropriate conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Don't forget, you'll need a comma before the conjunction.

  • I like to read novels; you prefer to read poetry.
  • Nobody dared to speak; they all want to see what would happen next.
  • He was usually so careful; this time he slipped up.
  • I took my suncream; it looked like it was going to be a lovely day.
  • Dave drives a Ford; John drives a Ferrari.
  • London is the largest city in Britain; no where else has such an exciting atmosphere.
  • You can choose to buy the hardback; you may prefer to buy the paperback.
How did you do?

Once you have finished, you may check your answers below.

Activity: Joining sentences with semicolons and transition words or phrases - 5 minutes

1. 1.Try Joining these sentences using a semicolon and an appropriate transition word or phrase. The transition words you are probably most familiar with include however, therefore, hence, thus, consequently, nevertheless, meanwhile and on the other hand.

  • I have been to Italy many times. I have never been to Greece.
  • I have spent too much money. I owe my bank thousands of pounds.
  • I am learning to speak Spanish. All my friends are learning German.
  • Most children learn to swim. Very few children drown
  • I like flowers. I hate gardening.
  • Jane does not eat meat. You will have to serve her vegetables.
How did you do?

Once you have finished, you may check your answers below.

Next we'll look at using semicolons to separate items in complicated or potentially confusing lists

Semicolons can be used to separate items in a list that contains commas. Using semicolons in this way helps to make your writing easier to read and understand, which is an important reminder of why we use punctuation. Look at the following example:

On our world tour we visited Tokyo, Japan; Rome, Italy; Berlin, Germany; Stockholm, Sweden and London, UK.

If the semicolons were replaced with commas in this example, we would be left with the following rather confusing list:

On our world tour we visited Tokyo, Japan; Rome, Italy; Berlin, Germany; Stockholm, Sweden and London, UK.

Activity: Using semicolons to separate items in complex lists - 5 minutes

1. Make these lists easier to understand by replacing some of the commas with semicolons.

  • To complete the task, you will need a piece of paper, A4 is best, a selection of pens, some glue - paper glue will be fine, a ruler and a pair of scissors.
  • The chairman introduced the speaker, Miss Jones, the Company President, Mr Banks, the delegation from China, including their Chairman, and all the other guests.
  • I would love to visit the Taj Mahal, India, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy, the pyramids at Giza, Egypt, Machu Picchu, Peru, and the Hoover Dam, USA.
  • Lizzie went shopping and bought pens, pencils and paper, socks, pants and vests, salad and fruit, and a pair of shoes.
  • Some of the most important battles of the 20th Century were The Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October, 1805, The Battle of Waterloo, 18th June, 1805, the Battle of the Somme, 1st July, 1916, and the Battle of Britain, which took place over the summer and autumn in 1940.
How did you do?

When you have finished, you can check your answers below.

Recommended Further Reading


Last, but by no means least, we'll look at how to use colons.

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