by Muranda Mendez
You’ve seen them in grammar handouts from teachers, pushed somewhere between warnings on overusing commas and misplacing apostrophes. Maybe you’ve tried to stick one in your essay, checking 10 times to make sure you were using it correctly.
The semicolon has puzzled students for decades. It seems so smart and sophisticated—but how do you know you’re using it right?
Simply put, a semicolon is a punctuation mark that is used to separate two independent clauses. So what is a clause exactly? A clause is part of a sentence that contains the subject and verb. The key to using a semicolon is that you’re connecting two independent clauses, meaning that it expresses a complete thought. So by using a semicolon, you’re connecting two sentences which could stand on their own.
Sound confusing? Let’s look at some examples:
This is a dependent clause:
When the students formed a study group for their quiz.
Notice how this clause can’t stand on its own as a complete sentence.
Now here it is as an independent clause:
The students formed a study group for their quiz.
Now the clause makes sense as a complete thought or sentence. In this case, the word “when” is what makes the dependent clause unable to stand on its own.Remember, a semicolon can only connect two independent clauses. Here are some examples of misused semicolons
- The store was having a huge sale on many items; clothes, toys, and electronics.
- Desperate to fit in with her friends; Mackenzie pretended to have watched the new show.
- While they were swimming; they saw dolphins and turtles.
If you want to check whether or not you’re using a semicolon correctly, just read the two clauses on their own and see if they make sense. If they don’t, it’s a miss. In the first example, a semicolon is used to introduce a list; it should be a colon. The last two examples attempt to connect a dependent clause with an independent clause using a semicolon; it should be a comma. If you’re still not sure you used punctuation correctly, try running your paper through our grammar checker tool.
Finally, let’s look at an example of when you should use a semicolon:
Incorrect: Emily is very smart, she was in advanced reading when she was eight years old.
Correct: Emily is very smart; she was in advanced reading when she was eight years old.
The mistake here was a comma splice. A semicolon fixes that because it allows the independent clauses to stand on their own, while still showing that they’re connected.
All three of these example are correct. The first two connect two related independent clauses. The third separates items in a list that already contains commas, which is another valid use of the semicolon. Another tip for checking if you’re using a semicolon correctly is to substitute in a conjunction (and, or, so, but, yet, for). In the first example above, you could have written, “In English class we read stories, and we also read nonfiction texts.” Using a semicolon allows you to take out the comma and the conjunction!
As you can see from these examples, semicolons don’t have to be intimidating. Hopefully you now feel more confident about adding one into your writing. Your teacher will likely be impressed!