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The Semicolon

TIP Sheet

The semicolon is used to separate independent clauses in specific situations. It also separates a series of items which contain internal punctuation.

1. Use a semicolon between independent clauses when the clauses are closely related in meaning and when there is no coordinating conjunction between them.

  • Often two independent clauses which are closely related in meaning can be connected by a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, not, for, so, yet). However, if the relationship between the clauses is clear without the conjunction, the writer can choose to omit the coordinating conjunction and use a semicolon instead. The semicolon tends to emphasize the close connection between the two thoughts.

When you come to London, Kristen, you will stay with me; I wouldn't have it otherwise.

Be careful and drive defensively; you'll be glad you did.

2. Use a semicolon between independent clauses linked with a transitional expression.

  • Transitional expressions include conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases.

Conjunctive adverbs

accordingly finally likewise similarly
also furthermore meanwhile specifically
anyway hence moreover still
besides however nevertheless subsequently
certainly incidentally next the
consequently indeed nonetheless therefore
conversely instead otherwise thu

Transitional phrases

after all even so in fact
as a matter of fact for example in other words
as a result for instance in the first place
at any rate in addition on the contrary
at the same time in conclusion on the other hand
  • When a transitional expression appears between independent clauses, the transition is preceded by a semicolon and usually followed by a comma.

The cook's specialty is broiled salmon; however, tonight it's not available.

That's a difficult question; in other words, I'm not going to answer it.

  • When the transitional expression appears in the middle or at the end of the second independent clause, the semicolon goes between the clauses.

The man pleaded innocent; his face, however, looked as guilty as sin.

  • Transitional expressions should not be confused with the coordinating conjunctions and, but, or, not, for, so, and yet. When coordinating conjunctions connect independent clauses, they are preceded by a comma.
  • Exception: Sometimes when independent clauses contain internal punctuation which might cause confusion, a semicolon may be used in addition to a coordinating conjunction.

The hike will be difficult to complete, dangerous to attempt, frightening for most of us, and long; and in spite of her reassurances, I don't even think we should go.

3. Use a semicolon between items in a series containing internal punctuation.

  • When the division of items becomes confusing due to multiple punctuation marks, use semicolons to distinguish between major groupings of ideas.

We visited Washington, D.C., in the fall; Downer's Grove, Illinois, in the spring; and Cooperstown, New York, in the middle of a very hot summer.

The population of my hometown in 1762 was 4,123; in 1790, 7,921; and in 1998, 42,380.




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