Skip to main content

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


  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

    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.


Post a Comment

Comments are moderated very strictly

Popular posts from this blog

En Dash, Em Dash, and Hyphen

We have three types of dashes in use: The hyphen, En Dash, and the Em Dash. In this post, we will see how to use them all correctly. Hyphen (-) The hyphen is the minus key in Windows-based keyboards. This is a widely used punctuation mark. Hyphen should not be mistaken for a dash . Dash is different and has different function than a hyphen. A hyphen is used to separate the words in a compound adjective, verb, or adverb. For instance: The T-rex has a movement-based vision. My blog is blogger-powered. John’s idea was pooh-poohed. The hyphen can be used generally for all kinds of wordbreaks . En Dash (–) En Dash gets its name from its length. It is one ‘N’ long (En is a typographical unit that is almost as wide as 'N'). En Dash is used to express a range of values or a distance: People of age 55–80 are more prone to hypertension. Delhi–Sidney flight was late by three hours. In MS Word, you can put an En Dash either from the menu, clicking Insert->Symbol or by the k

4 Effective Ways to Write About a Boring Topic

  With the plethora of interesting topics to write about, you’re fortunate enough to get the “boring” one. While it can be a pain for many writers to wind up with such a task, I’m telling you now there are ways to make yours more interesting than it is. So if you find yourself stuck with the dreariest topic to fill in a blog about, don’t fret. Here are the four best ways to unburden yourself. 1. Never a boring topic, only a boring writer. Here’s the hard fact: It’s never about the topic being boring. It’s about the writer making it boring. For instance, you’re supposed to write about aquariums. I know, how can you continuously make this topic interesting, right? Well, you’d be surprised just in how many ways you can make it an enticing read. Start by listing down the basic “what”, “where”, “when” and “how” surrounding the topic. You can ask (and research) about “What material was first used to make aquariums?” or even “How the first aquarium was built?” or “What are

Another Tiny List of Confusables

Earlier, you may remember we published a list of confusable words . Here we are again, with such a list of words. Abjure/Adjure: Abjure means "to formally renounce (give up) something" such as a position. Adjure on the other hand means 'to appeal to' or 'solemnly order'. The governor decided to abjure his position due to political pressure. Normally, adjuring to the subordinates doesn't give many results. Amount/Number: Use amount when you have uncountable subject. Use number when it is countable. The amount of love one gets depends on the number of friends one has. Appraise/Apprise: Appraise is the word applied to quantitative evaluation of something. Apprise means 'communicate' or 'inform'. Appraising diamonds is the work of an expert. Joe apprised me of the schedule of events. Attorney/Lawyer/Solicitor: These terms are highly misinterpreted and confused by many people. Let me clarify. In the US, an attorney is any member