How to Use a Semicolon

Semicolons play an important role in the rhythm of writing. Taking the time to learn a few rules of semicolon use can greatly improve your writing.

Semicolons have a unique function; they connect two sentences that are closely related to one another. The previous compound sentence is an example of proper semicolon use. First, you must have two sentences that are “independent clauses,” which means they can stand on their own as sentences Use of semicolons also requires that the clauses be related in such a way that one of the sentences elaborates on the other. For example: “He is taller now; he grew half a foot.” In all proper uses of the semicolon, a period could be used instead. This would not make the sentences grammatically incorrect, but would change how the sentences read. If a period is used, a “break” is created between the sentences. With a semicolon, the gentler transition from one to the other emphasizes the relationship between the two.

In addition, semicolons can be used in lists when that which is listed includes commas. For example, “We have twelve apples, red and green; five oranges; two bananas, one ripe and one yellow.”

Often people make the mistake of confusing semicolon and colons. Colons can be used in between an independent clause and a direction or list that follows it. If you are uncertain whether to use a semicolon or colon, ask yourself if the clauses on both sides of the mark are independent.

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