Academic Support

Using the Semicolon

The semicolon can be tricky to master and use because of the few rules governing its use. However, the semicolon balances some confusion in English grammar.

Uses for the Semicolon

1. Semicolons are used to separate parts of a sentence that have an equal grammatical value.

For example:
  • independent clause; independent clause
    He ate an apple for breakfast; he also had an apple with his lunch.
  • phrase; phrase
    My English class required me to write using a few different styles such as how to write an expository essay, a narrative, and a fictional story; how to write an MLA style research paper; and how to write an APA style research paper.
  • item in a list; item in a list; item in a list
    My favorite Broadway shows are “Hello, Dolly!”; “The Phantom of the Opera”; and “South Pacific.”

Since semicolons can only be placed between items that are comparable and equal in weight grammatically, a semicolon cannot be used to separate an independent and dependent clause or and independent clause and a prepositional phrase. A comma is the correct punctuation in those cases.

2. Semicolons join independent clauses that are closely related.
The evolution of female American writers is on-going; Kate Chopin and her peers helped begin the cycle, with Sandra Cisneros and her peers continuing the story today.

3. Semicolons are used between independent clauses in conjunction with words such as however, therefore, nevertheless, nonetheless, moreover, and consequently. Called, conjunctive adverbs, these words cannot join sentences by themselves and require a semicolon.

Jane hates shrimp; however she ate it at the party to be polite. Todd liked Anna; therefore, he asked her to the movies. Erika does not like camping; nevertheless, she went on the trip to the park.

Although conjunctive adverbs precede a second independent clause, sometimes words such as however and therefore appears in the middle of an independent clause. In this case, the word is set off by commas.

4. Semicolons join independent clauses with words and phrases such as indeed, in fact, at any rate, for example, and on the other hand. These are similar to conjunctive adverbs and require a semicolon before them with a comma following them.

5. Semicolons are used to separate clauses, phrases, or items in a series that may be confusing if commas are the only punctuation used.

Stephen King has written many novels that have become movies such as The Langoliers, which is an older short story; the movie, Needful Things; and Storm of the Century, for which he first wrote the screenplay.

6. Semicolons usually fall outside of quotation marks.

Sam yelled, “Be careful”; John could not hear him and answered, “What?” as he ran into the bushes.


Use semicolons to introduce quotations.

Paul exclaimed; “I am the best!”  (No)
Paul exclaimed, I am the best!” (Yes)

Use semicolons to introduce lists.

Paul likes; apples, cherries, plums, and apricots. (No)
Paul likes: apples, cherries, plums, and apricots. (Yes)

Conjunctive Adverbs

consequently           meanwhile
otherwise  moreover
rather nonetheless
furthermore otherwise
hence rather
however then
therefore thus

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