fellow editor made mention recently of the difficulty some writers
have with the use of the semicolon. Since I had just finished
editing several pieces that displayed that same confusion, I decided
to devote a column to an explanation of the proper uses of a
semicolon, with appropriate examples.
Between Two Independent
A semicolon is often used between
two closely related independent clauses.To use the semicolon
properly, therefore, one has to understand the difference between
independent and dependent clauses.
The short description is
an independent clause can stand by
itself as a separate sentence; a dependent clause cannot.
Here are some examples of two independent clauses connected
by a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS—for, and, nor, but, or, yet,
and so are the most common coordinating conjunctions). Next
you'll see the two independent clauses broken into two separate
sentences.Then we'll show you the same clauses connected with a
semicolon. In this use, the
semicolon replaces the coordinating
- Joan needed a new coat, and she drove to the mall
to buy one.
The two sentences: Joan needed a new coat. She
drove to the mall to buy one.
With the semicolon: Joan needed
a new coat; she drove to the mall to buy one.
- The bicycle’s wheel was broken, but Billy didn’t
have the money to get it fixed.
The two sentences: The
bicycle’s wheel was broken. Billy didn’t have the money to get it
With the semicolon: The bicycle’s wheel was broken;
Billy didn’t have the money to get it fixed.
- Sam took the roast from the oven and I carried it
to the dining room table.
The two sentences: Sam took the roast
from the oven. I carried it to the dining room table.
semicolon: Sam took the roast from the oven; I carried it to the
dining room table.
Notice in the examples above that each sentence that
contains a semicolon also is composed of two closely
related statements. Semicolons are NOT used between two
sentences are examples of two unrelated statements connected
with a coordinating conjunction:
- Alex flew to Arizona this morning, and we went to
a ball game.
The two sentences: Alex flew to Arizona this
morning. We went to a ball game.
WRONG use of semicolon: Alex
flew to Arizona this morning; we went to a ball game. The clauses
are independent, but the ideas are unrelated. This
use of a semicolon is incorrect.
The clerk asked my name, and I reached into my
pocket for a mint.
The two sentences: The clerk asked my name.
I reached into my pocket for a mint.
WRONG use of semicolon:
The clerk asked my name; I reached into my pocket for a mint.
Again, the clauses are independent, but the ideas are
unrelated. This use of a semicolon is
Semicolons can be very useful between independent
clauses when you want an idea to flow without stopping for a period,
but you want a little more hesitation than a comma provides. Just
take a moment to make sure you’re using it correctly, and remember,
independent clauses are able to stand alone as a
To Separate a Series
a semicolon to separate items in a list or series if any of the items contain commas.
- The bag contained softballs; bats; the catcher’s
mask, chest protector, and shin guards; and a couple of extra
The catcher’s gear (mask, chest protector, and shin
guards) contains commas and needs to be kept separate in the list.
Using semicolons before and after it makes this clear, and
semicolons need to be put after each of the other items for
- Her hall closet contained walking, running,
tennis, and golf shoes; flannel, suede, and denim jackets;
assorted hats; and a scarf.
The items that contain
commas—shoes and jackets—are correctly separated by semicolons. A
semicolon also follows hats for consistency in the
To Separate Lengthy Clauses
Use a semicolon (rather than a comma) between independent
clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction if the clauses
already contain commas or if the clauses are
lengthy . Note that in this type of sentence, the
coordinating conjunction that comes after the semicolon can be
- Joan needed a new coat, a new dress, and new
shoes; and she drove to the mall to buy them.
- The bicycle’s wheel was broken, the seat was
jammed, and the handlebars were bent; but Billy didn’t have the
money to get them fixed.
- Sam opened the oven, took out the roast,
potatoes, carrots, and onions, and then sliced the roast and put
some of the vegetables around it and some in separate dishes; and
I made several trips to carry everything to the dining room
With a Conjunctive Adverb or a Transitional Phrase
Another common use of a semicolon is
with a conjunctive adverb (adverbs that join independent
clauses): however, moreover, therefore, consequently,
otherwise, nevertheless, thus, etc.
- Joan needed a new coat; therefore, she drove to
the mall to buy one.
- The bicycle’s wheel was broken; however, Billy
didn’t have the money to get it fixed.
- Sam took the roast from the oven; consequently, I
carried it to the dining room table.
And use a semicolon with a transitional phrase that
links two independent clauses: because of which, as a result
of, not to mention, etc.
- The board met this past Thursday; as a result,
they passed some new rules.
- We chose a new place to dine; in retrospect, that
was a mistake.
- Babe Ruth hit a lot of home runs; because of
which, people cheered for him.
To Sum Up
- To replace conjunctions in linking
- Only with independent clauses that are closely
- To separate a series when any item contains
- To separate lengthy clauses or ones that contain
- With conjunctive adverbs—however, moreover,
- With transitional phrases—because of which, as a
result of, not to mention, etc.
© 2004, Nann
Excerpted from Nann Dunne's Fiction-Editing
(a work in progress)
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