Celebrate with a semi-colon

Celebrate with a semi-colon

What is a semi-colon?

A semi-colon looks like this:

Picture of a semi-colon

It is made by positioning a full stop (a period) above a comma.

The semi-colon is often confused with its cousin, the colon, who looks like this:

picture of a colon

The colon is made from two full stops positioned one above the other.

The semi-colon is special and it has its own job to do. It is different to its cousin, the colon, and also different to its separate parts, the full stop and the comma.

The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its form, which combines half of each of those marks.

Celia Watson for The Paris Review

So why use a semi-colon?

Well, using a semi-colon will make you appear smarter for one thing. Mind you, that only works if you use it correctly which is why you really need to read on if you are not sure about how to do that.

Read on …

Using a semi-colon can make you seem smarter because semi-colons belong to complex sentences. Using varied sentence structure (a mix of simple, complex and compound sentences) is a sign of more sophisticated language use and basically, if your use of language is more sophisticated, then people will assume that you are more sophisticated. And we all want to seem more sophisticated, right?

It is worth noting, however, that the converse is also true. Using a semi-colon incorrectly can make you seem as if you don’t know what you are doing. It can make it appear as if you are trying to do something that you don’t really understand, and that can have the opposite effect. No need for a rhetorical question here: No-body wants to seem unsophisticated!

When do I use a semi-colon?

1. To join two independent clauses

A semi-colon can be used to join two independent clauses. An independent clause is a unit of meaning which can stand as a complete sentence in its own right. The two independent clauses should be closely related.

For example,
I like using semi-colons. They make my writing appear more sophisticated.
I like using semi-colons; they make my writing appear more sophisticated.

A side-note about coordinating conjunctions: The FANBOYS

Often two sentences would be joined by using a coordinating conjunction. The coordinating conjunctions are: for; and; nor, but; or; yet; so. These are the FANBOYS. If you decide to join your two related sentences with a semi-colon then you need to drop the coordinating conjunction.

For example,
It can be difficult to remember the coordinating conjunctions so the acronym FANBOYS can help with that.
It can be difficult to remember the coordinating conjunctions; the acronym FANBOYS can help with that.

2. To divide up items in a list

Semi-colons can also be used to divide items in a list, where the list requires internal punctuation. You introduce the list with a colon, and then use the semi colon to separate out the phrases within the list.

For example,
The semi-colon can be used in a few different ways: to join two clauses together, especially when they are related in some way; to separate items in a list, particularly when internal punctuation is required; to replace a coordinating conjunction (remember the FANBOYS).

3. To join two clauses if you are using a conjunctive adverb

A semi-colon should also be used to join two clauses if you are using a conjunctive adverb. Conjunctive adverbs are words such as however, moreover, then, finally, consequently etc. The conjunctive adverb will have to be followed by a comma.

For example,
I hope that this post on using a semi-colon will encourage you of their value; however, for those of you who remain sceptical, please read on.

Other semi-colon related tips

Comma Splice

Comma splice is term used when two sentences are incorrectly joined by the use of a comma. Where using a semi-colon to join two independent sentences is a choice (you can use a full stop or a conjunction instead), using a comma IS NEVER A CHOICE. It is simply incorrect, so my advice would be not to do it if you want to seem like you have a good mastery of the English language.


In terms of punctuation, you don’t need to leave a character space before using a semi-colon, but you should always leave one after. Where two sentences written independently would each start with a capital letter, you do not need to use a capital following a semi-colon, unless the word you are following with is a proper noun

So why is the title of the post about celebrating?

Although using semi-colons in your writing will mean that your sentence structure is more varied and possibly more effectively written, they should not be overused. Try to think of them as celebratory punctuation, like a glass of champagne, for example. A glass of chilled Bollinger can be nice once in a while, but, unlike a drink such as water, it should not be drunk all the time.

Like many of the finer things in life, if you overdo it, you will feel the negative effects, so keep your semi-colons in reserve to mark out those special occasions. Between two and four semi-colons in a piece of writing this length, used correctly, would probably show a good mastery and control. Again, we are looking for sophistication not dissipation, but it will depend on the style and purpose of the piece you are writing.

At the end of the day, do what works for your writing; have fun with language, enjoy using the semi-colon, and become the envy of your friends.

If you have found this post helpful then why not see which other Writing Tips could come in handy.

6 thoughts on “Celebrate with a semi-colon

      1. p.s. thanks for the lesson, Missy. Whenever I want to use one I text my 19 yr-old granddaughter for help.

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