English Corner – Semicolons

Similar to commas, Semicolons are an important punctuation mark that plays a key role in many English sentences. When you think of a semicolon, think of it being a slight pause in a sentence between the two main clauses or parts that should be separated as you would do with a comma. You will want to use the semicolon in between two independent clauses within a basic sentence and this is especially true if there is no coordinating conjunction being used such as and, or, but, etc. A good example of when semicolons can be used is when you are writing a list of items or things that need to be separated from one another. This is probably the most important use of a semicolon, but it is far from being the only usage.

Semicolons are often used in the middle or towards the end of a sentence if apart of a multi-item list. You won’t see a semicolon being used at the beginning or the end of a sentence as you would with a period or a question mark. Semicolons, colons, and commas are all part of what is known as ‘internal punctuation’, which forms the backbone of a complete sentence. Semicolons can be used with other semicolons within the same sentence as it would be the case when commas are used with commas in a similar sentence.

Semicolons can be used interchangeably with commas as well within the same sentence depending on whether two different people, places, or things are being referenced separately. It is perhaps most common that the semicolon is used with another semicolon or more, but it can be used with other forms of internal punctuation. In addition, semicolons can be used with a colon (:) because the colon often precedes the semicolon(s) in a complete sentence in terms of usage.

Let us look at a few examples where semicolons are being used with a colon preceding it:

1.)   Jackie bought the following items from the supermarket today: Corn; String beans; Tomatoes; Bread.

2.)   James listed his worst fears for his teacher in the following order: Flying; Being in front of an audience; Heights; Spiders.

Let us look at how semicolons (;) can be used with commas (,) correctly within the same sentence:

1.)   George’s family included John, his older brother; Jenny, his younger sister; and Jerry, his younger brother.

2.)   There are McDonald’s restaurants all over the world including Istanbul, Turkey; Mexico City, Mexico; and Bogota, Colombia.

3.)   The astronauts had to decide about the countdown: Would they count from three, two, one; or one, two, three?

All these examples show how interchangeable punctuation marks are within a complete sentence especially when you are listing family members or restaurant chains in different cities. You can see how commas and semicolons can be used together, especially to highlight pauses within a sentence to show differences between places and/or people. Semicolons are not used as often as commas but they play an important role.

Let’s look at how semicolons are used to separate independent clauses especially when a coordinating conjunction is not being used in its place:

1.)   Tim goes to France; I go to Spain.

2.)   Jenny wanted to play tennis; I told her the courts were closed due to rain.

3.)   Jack has three dogs; Tommy has one.

4.)   I believe in UFOs; Jordan thinks I have gone crazy.

In these sentences, you are particularly going to use semicolons when the thoughts in each independent clause are opposed to each other or neutral to the other. When you want to contradict the previous clause, you can use a semicolon to highlight the difference between the two points of views instead of using a coordinating conjunction. To put it another way, coordinating conjunctions are used with independent clauses that are similar to each other whereas you use semicolons with independent clauses that are opposed or contradictory of one another. Sentences with semicolons tend to be shorter than those sentences that use commas or coordinating conjunctions, which do a better job of lengthening the sentence without making it a run-on sentence.

Lastly, a semicolon has an important usage in between sentences or within sentences when it comes to quotations. A comma can replace a period after a quotation and then is followed by a semicolon to link the two sentences together especially when the two people are in a conversation.

Let’s look at a few examples of how semicolons are used within a sentence where there are quotations cited as part of a larger story or narrative:

1.)   “I don’t want to do this,” he stated; “You have no choice in the matter.”

2.)   “Is this your home?” she asked; “Why don’t you go inside to your family?”

3.)   “Why do you look so upset?” he inquired; “What do you have to worry about these days?”

Unless followed by the beginning of a quotation or a proper noun or subject, semicolons are followed by a lower-case letter. You can see from these examples and the explanations given that semicolons are a key part of English grammar and punctuation. Whether its with connecting short independent clauses or bringing together a series of quotations, semicolons can be very useful in English writing. The most important use of semicolons remains making lists especially of different people and places along with their descriptive qualities. Please be sure to follow the example sentences I have given to form your own semicolon sentences. Keep practicing, do your best, and be sure to read this blog post again in the future to better understand this important punctuation mark.