Using a semicolon appropriately, and sparingly, makes for an effective and compelling statement. If you’re scared, don’t be. While the rules for using semicolons can seem intimidating, they’re actually pretty simple. There are three main rules for using a semicolon.
Separating Two Independent Clauses
Semicolons are often used to separate two independent clauses (or sentences). But that sounds like a period, doesn’t it? The difference is that the independent clauses must be closely related or connected — more so than sentences separated by a period. Consider the following example:
The company has continued to expand this year; we’ve increased our clientele by 52%.
Using a semicolon instead of a period here shows the close connection while adding a punch to the second clause.
When using a semicolon to connect two independent clauses, always remember these two rules:
- It must be placed between two independent clauses (sentences).
- It must join two very closely related ideas.
Following a Conjunction and Preceding a Comma
Certain adverbs (however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, therefore, and sometimes then) should be preceded by a semicolon instead of a comma. The adverb is then usually, but not always, followed by a comma. You can leave the comma out if you think the sentence seems functional without the comma.
Here are some examples:
Their son said he planned to be home before midnight; however, he never came home.
The child wanted to do more to protect the environment; therefore she started recycling.
Clarifying Complex Series
You can also use semicolons to clarify lists that use commas within items in a series. This is best explained by first looking at an example.
The family decided to travel to Paris, France; London, England; Madrid, Spain; and Bucharest, Romania.
This sentence lists four sets of items — namely, cities and their corresponding countries. Because commas are used to separate a city and its country, then using commas to separate these items in a series would produce too many commas. So, we use commas to separate the cities and countries, and we use semicolons to separate the pairs.
Remember, semicolons require more finesse than simply substituting a semicolon for any period. Use them sparingly and purposefully. Just remember the above three points and you’ll be fine.