Punctuation Tip: Using Semicolons Correctly

We have, in our punctuation help series, looked already at commas, colons, ellipsis, quotation marks, etc. Here, we will check out the uses of another punctuation mark, the semicolon (;), and check out how it differs from other matching punctuations, the period and the comma.


Semicolon is used to introduce a pause, slightly longer than the comma. It's not, however, a replacement for comma. Semicolons are usually applied on two occasions: To separate related sentences (independent clauses) and as a replacement for comma in monster lists.

1. Separating Independent Clauses

Semicolons can be used a sentence separator. Independent clauses are independent sentences themselves; they have complete meaning. When writing two sentences, the usual separator is the period. However, you can use semicolon to replace this period, if the sentences are closely related. Look at the following sentence:

Jack Nicholson is a great actor; he secured the Oscar award thrice.

Here the part on either side of the semicolon is a complete sentence, and hence they can be separated using a period. But, these sentences are very much related that you can use a semicolon to separate them. So, in these sentences, a period or the semicolon is appropriate.

2. Separating Items in a Monster List

A monster list is any list of items, in which items themselves contain commas. In such cases, separating items with commas creates confusion. Look at the following sentence:

Mary, her husband, Jim Wordsmith, his wife, Alison, and her friend, Ben, were present at the party.

When you look at this sentence, can you make out the meaning? Impossible. Now, check out the rewritten sentence below:

Mary; her husband; Jim Wordsmith; his wife, Alison; and her friend, Ben were present at the party.

Now we know that Mary's husband is not named in the sentence; Alison is wife of Jim Wordsmith; and her friend is Ben.

When Comma is Inappropriate

The sentence mentioned above in monster list is one place for confusion, where writers may feel that a comma should be used, though it doesnt make sense.

1. The general rule to follow is whenever you encounter a list with any of the lists items itself contains a comma, the comma cannot be used to separate the whole list, and use semicolon instead.

2. Some writers tend to separate sentences, which are closely related, with commas. This causes a comma splice, which is grammatically incorrect. In such sentences, either follow the second sentence with an appropriate conjunction (and or but), or separate the sentences with a semicolon.

For instance:

Mary is wife of Martin, She is a teacher.

Rewrite to:

Mary is wife of Martin, and she is a teacher.
Or better:
Mary is wife of Martin; she is a teacher.


Using punctuation marks appropriately is essential in correct writing. You should read the other posts on punctuation, accessible from the category entry, Punctuation. Your comments are most welcome.

Books on Punctuation From Amazon:

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

6 Opinions:

  1. Thanks sharing these tips and topic. I have seen a lot of writing tips site. I am searching the internet thoroughly, in search for useful writing tips. Yours really helped me out here and http://www.howtowrite.info/writing

    It adds over 45 How To Write tips especially crafted on professional documents like proposals, business plans, resume but also more personal like how to writing a song for example. Helped me out!

    Keep up with your website!

  2. Nice tip on semicolons.

    Interesting blog too.

  3. Hi Debby, many thanks for your comment. And the link mentioned is really interesting.


  4. Very nice site.

    But -- and sorry for the nitpicking bit given the nature of the site it seems best -- I think you should change "Its" into "it's" at the beginning of the second paragraph.

    P.S. Feel free to erase this post once you've fixed it.

  5. @anonymous: It's been fixed. For sure this is a grammar and correct punctuation blog, but I have too little time to read and edit my own sentences, and that's why these errors pop up.

  6. I am not an English native speaker and I like this pages because are simple to understand and very useful for my writing.


Comments are moderated very strictly