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May 12, 2024

What’s a Semicolon? + When to Use It (With Examples)

What’s a Semicolon? + When to Use It (With Examples)

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The semicolon is one of the most confusing punctuation marks in English. After all, it shares part of its name with another punctuation mark, the colon. And its symbol (;) combines both a period and a comma. 

Given all of this, it can be challenging to figure out what a semicolon is exactly and how you should use it. Fortunately, as a professional writer with a flair for grammar topics, I can demystify this punctuation mark for you.

In this article, I’ll share a clear definition of “semicolon,” explain how it differs from a regular colon, and give specific examples of when to use it. 

What’s a semicolon?

A semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark that connects two independent clauses without using a coordinating conjunction (e.g., “and,” “but,” etc.) An independent clause is a group of words that features a subject and a verb and conveys a complete thought. 

For example, a semicolon joins two independent clauses in this: “Ella loves to collect stamps; it’s her favorite pastime.” Each part of the sentence before and after the semicolon could be sentences of their own. That’s what makes them independent clauses!

Tip: Any time you see the phrase “independent clause,” replace it with “complete thought” or “complete sentence” to make it easier to understand.

Additionally, semicolons separate items in a list that already features commas, as shown here: 

We visited Paris, France; London, England; and Venice, Italy.

Semicolons also indicate a pause that is stronger than a comma but not as strong as a period. This helps suggest that the two ideas in the sentence are closely related. 

For example, consider the sentence,

“I ordered a latte; my friend got an espresso.” 

When reading it, you briefly pause between ideas rather than coming to a full stop as you would if a period divided the clauses. This shows they’re related — rather than isolated — actions.

You’ll also notice that the word after a semicolon isn’t capitalized (unlike with a period). This is a grammar rule, so don’t capitalize the subsequent word unless it’s a proper noun — i.e., a specific name of a person, place, or thing.

For instance: 

❌ Mariah Carey has an incredible vocal range; She can even sing in a whistle register.  
✅ Mariah Carey has an incredible vocal range; she can even sing in a whistle register. 
✅ Not many pop stars can sing in a whistle register; Mariah Carey can. 

What’s the difference between a semicolon and a colon? 

Both colons and semicolons are used to connect two related clauses. 

However, semicolons connect two related independent clauses without explaining their relationship.

For example: 

Lauren is taking five classes this semester; she’s got a busy schedule.

Here, the semicolon connects the idea that Lauren has a busy schedule with her taking five classes. However, the sentence that comes after the semicolon doesn’t clarify what those classes are. It simply introduces a related but general thought about Lauren’s schedule. 

Meanwhile, a colon is often used to introduce more information or a list of items

For example:

Lauren is taking five classes this semester: political science, calculus, biology, French, and creative writing.

Here, the colon illustrates how the last part of the sentence (the specific classes) expands on the information that comes before the colon (the number of classes). 

Additionally, with colons, the second clause doesn’t have to be (and often isn’t) independent — like in the second example. When using semicolons to connect two ideas, both clauses must be independent.

Pro tip: Sometimes, people use colons to separate closely related independent clauses — e.g., “Then he remembered: Eliza was supposed to bring the snacks to the party.” However, in formal writing, it’s more standard to connect these clauses with a semicolon.

When do I use a semicolon? (with examples)

Before you start sprinkling semicolons into your writing, you need to know when it’s appropriate to use them. Here are four main instances when you’ll use a semicolon.

When connecting two related independent clauses 

As I explained earlier, semicolons are most commonly used to join two independent clauses with a close and logical connection. 

For example: "Rory loves to read; she carries a book everywhere she goes."

In this sentence, Rory’s passion for reading and her book-carrying habits are connected. She travels everywhere with a book because she enjoys reading."

When separating items in a list containing commas 

As previously mentioned, you should also use semicolons to separate items in a list containing internal commas. Doing so prevents confusion because the semicolon helps you distinguish each item.

For example:

✅ The pop star toured several cities across America: Atlanta, Georgia; Houston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Los Angeles, California.  
The pop star toured several cities across America: Atlanta, Georgia, Houston, Texas, Chicago, Illinois, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles, California. 

Without semicolons to organize this list, it appears that every place mentioned — including the states — is a city.

When using multiple dependent clauses 

To add more depth and variety to your writing, you might use sentences with one or more dependent clauses. A dependent clause contains a subject and verb but doesn’t form a complete thought, like the line in bold:  

After you finish your homework, you can watch TV.

Tip: Whenever you read the phrase “dependent clause,” swap it out for “part of a thought” or “an incomplete idea.” Also, you can tell when clauses are dependent because they don’t make sense as a standalone sentence.

The example above includes only one dependent clause. But if you wanted to use several, a semicolon could help you clarify the sentence so your reader can easily follow the information. 

For example:

✅ Our dance class this month covered salsa, which is upbeat; ballet, which is challenging to master; and hip-hop, which is enjoyable to learn

The semicolons here clearly divide and organize the dependent clauses, helping you understand more about each dance genre. 

As with the serial list example, if the same sentence contained only commas, you’d have trouble identifying each element within the list. The information would blur together!

❌ Our dance class this month covered salsa, which is upbeat, ballet, which is challenging to master, and hip-hop, which is enjoyable to learn. 

When using conjunctive adverbs 

A conjunctive adverb (e.g., “however,” “moreover,” and “additionally”) is an adverb or adverb phrase that connects and shows the logical relationship between two independent clauses. 

For example, a conjunctive adverb can be used to show cause and effect, as you see here: 

Sam forgot his boarding pass; therefore, he couldn’t board the plane.

You’ll notice that the semicolon comes before the conjunctive adverb “therefore.” This helps you see the link between the two sentences — that Sam forgetting his boarding pass made him unable to board the plane.

You can also use conjunctive adverbs for:

  • Emphasis — e.g., with “in fact,” “above all,” and “indeed” 
  • Contrast — such as with “on the other hand,” “conversely,” and “otherwise”
  • Addition — e.g., with “furthermore,” “also,” and “in addition to”
  • Sequence — such as with “afterward,” “then,” and “next”
  • Illustration — e.g., with “for example,” “namely,” and “specifically” 

You can use a semicolon before any conjunctive adverb. For example: “The basketball team had an excellent season this year; in fact, they advanced to the finals.” Just check that the sentences you’re connecting are independent clauses. 

When should I avoid using a semicolon?

Not every situation calls for a semicolon. In certain cases, using one may even break grammar rules. 

For instance, you should never use a semicolon between an independent and dependent clause. Instead, use a comma, as shown below: 

Semicolon: Although I love cheesecake; I prefer red velvet cake. 
Comma: Although I love cheesecake, I prefer red velvet cake.  

Furthermore, don’t use a semicolon when you have two complete sentences connected by a coordinating conjunction.” For example:

Semicolon: Ronald wanted to go to the beach; but it started to rain. 
Comma: Ronald wanted to go to the beach, but it started to rain. 

Finally, don’t use a semicolon to introduce a list. Instead, opt for a colon. 

Colons are used when one sentence or clause elaborates on the preceding one. Semicolons simply connect related independent clauses. 

For instance:

Semicolon: Juan likes to listen to the following music genres; jazz, hip-hop, rock, pop, and gospel. 
Colon: Juan likes to listen to the following music genres: jazz, hip-hop, rock, pop, and gospel.

AI tip: Wordtune’s Editor can spot when you’ve used a semicolon incorrectly and offer suggestions to correct it.

Wordtune’s Editor offers correct suggestions for a sentence that uses a semicolon incorrectly.


A semicolon connects two related independent clauses without using coordinating conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” It also separates items in a serial list, clarifies sentences with multiple dependent clauses, and draws attention to conjunctive adverbs such as “therefore” and “however.”

Now that you’re armed with this information, you can confidently use semicolons in your writing. 

Have other grammar-related questions? We can help. Check out our articles on understanding compound sentences and mastering double negatives.


What is a semicolon vs. a comma? 

A semicolon connects two independent clauses that are closely related (e.g., “I like to paint; it’s my favorite hobby.”) You can also use it to separate individual items in a list that contain commas (e.g., “I’ve lived in San Francisco, California; Denver, Colorado; and Newark, New Jersey.”)

Commas, meanwhile, separate elements within a sentence more generally. For example, a comma can separate introductory phrases (e.g., “On Fridays, we eat pizza”) and independent clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction (e.g., “Roman plays the drum, and he also plays the clarinet.”) 

When should I use a semicolon in a list?

Use a semicolon to distinguish individual items in a list, particularly when that list has commas and creates confusion. For instance, a semicolon clarifies the individual cities in this list: “We visited Athens, Greece; Florence, Italy; and Madrid, Spain.”