111 Semicolons (English)

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Understanding Semicolons

Semicolons have a number of useful reasons to be included in a sentence or paragraph. Where colons can be useful outside of sentence structures, semicolons are typically limited to separating text in paragraphs or similar constructs. You may think semicolons are the halfway point between commas and colons, and in some respects, that assumption wouldn't be far from the truth. Where a comma offers a pause and a colon introduces something, a semicolon can be considered a halfway point between these two attributes. However, a semicolon adds value to a sentence with its own merits. At times, only a semicolon can offer the clear interpretation of text intended to be set off in a manner that other punctuation might not be able to achieve as precisely and clearly. Using a semicolon in a sentence may not be as forgiving as a misplaced comma or period, so special consideration should be taken before treating text with a semicolon.

Semicolons as Hard comma

When a sentence contains a series of items, and that series contains items that are themselves separated by commas, then the semicolon is useful for indicating the break between the original series of items as a hard comma. That is to say, when items in a list contain commas within them, then a semicolon can be used to separate the top-level list items as a comma, referred to as a hard comma.
For example:
This sentence contains: an item ending with a semicolon; a series of words, text, and filler within the main series; and a concluding element that is preceded by a comma because it is part of the top-level series of items.
As a hard comma, a semicolon is typically used to indicate the separation of items containing within themselves commas or similarly confusing punctuation. Without the semicolon as a hard comma, the series items with lists within that series would be difficult to interpret, leaving readers confused and uncertain. The semicolon helps clarify which items within each of the main list's items are contained within each top-level list item.
When used as a hard comma, all elements within that top-level list of items are given the same treatment. That is to say, all elements within a list that is separated by semicolons are treated the same. So even though an item following a hard comma might not contain within itself any comma-separated items, it is still separated by a semi-colon from the other items in that list level. Items in a list must be separated by the same punctuation throughout the list with the exception of the penultimate list item, which can be followed by a conjunction with or without the punctuation, depending upon personal preference and style guidelines.

Semicolons Replacing Conjunctions

When a sentence contains two independent clauses that are closely related compared to the other sentences in that paragraph, and a conjunction would be less meaningful in terms of readability of the sentence, then a semicolon may be placed between the two clauses instead of a comma followed by a conjunction. That is to say, the comma and the conjunction are both removed if replaced by a semicolon. There is never an instance where a semicolon should be followed by a conjunction; if you find yourself in that situation, consider recasting the sentence.

Semicolons Introducing a Series

While often a series is introduced by a colon or a comma, there may be times when you want to indicate a different relationship between the sentence introducing the list items and that series of items. A semicolon implies that the list and the introductory clause have a relationship, but not necessarily a direct causal relationship.

Semicolons in External List Items

When providing clauses or sentences in a bulleted list or numbered list, ending all the list items except the last with a semicolon reinforces their relationship to the introductory sentence while reserving the relationship of the list items to each other. To rephrase, in a bullet item list, ending each line with a semicolon can be interpreted as creating a sort of distance between the list items such that they are either not related or only loosely related, while retaining each of their relationship to the introduction of that bulleted list.

Semicolons Preceding Conjunctive Adverbs

A conjunctive adverb separates two independent clauses by being preceded the adverb with a semicolon and followed by a comma. An alternate option is to end the first independent clause with a period and then follow the adverb or adverbial phrase with either a comma or no treatment, depending on the writer's preference for open or closed form punctuation.
In this sentence we will demonstrate a conjunction; however, it is an conjunctive adverb not just any conjunction mind you.
Another consideration is if an adverb is within the context of a sentence and not separating two independent clauses that require an adverb to describe their relationship to each other. This exception is outside the scope of semicolons and should be covered under the Commas section.