Think of semicolons as sentence splicers.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #42

Today's topic is semicolons.

I get questions about semicolons a lot, so it's time to clear up some confusion.

Use Semicolons to Separate Things and Add Variety

Semicolons separate things. Most commonly, they separate two main clauses that are closely related to each other but that could stand on their own as sentences if you wanted them to.

Here's an example: "It was below zero; Squiggly wondered if he would freeze to death." The two parts of that long sentence that are separated by a semicolon could be sentences on their own if you put a period between them: It was below zero. Squiggly wondered if he would freeze to death.

One reason you might choose to use a semicolon instead of a period is if you wanted to add variety to your sentence structure, for example, if you thought you had too many short, choppy sentences in a row. But when you use a semicolon, the main clauses should be closely related to each other. You wouldn't write, “It was below zero; Squiggly had pizza for dinner,” because those two main clauses have nothing to do with each other. In fact, the other reason to use a semicolon instead of a period is if you want to draw attention to the relationship between the two clauses.

Now let's talk about the two forms of punctuation that are most commonly misused in place of semicolons: 

  1. Semicolons versus colons
  2. Semicolons versus commas

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Semicolons Versus Colons

People often ask me what the difference is between a semicolon and a colon, and there are a couple of differences. First, the purpose of a colon is to introduce or define something. For example, you could write, “Squiggly checked the temperature: it was -20 degrees.” I'll admit that these differences can be subtle, but I would use a colon in that sentence instead of a semicolon because the second clause (the temperature) strongly relates back to the first clause (Squiggly checking the temperature).

Semicolons separate things. Most commonly, they separate two main clauses that are closely related to each other but could stand on their own as sentences.

The second difference between a colon and a semicolon is that when you are joining things, you use a  semicolon to join things of equal weight, whereas you can use a colon to join things of equal or unequal weight. For example, you can use either a semicolon or a colon to join two main clauses, but you can only use a colon to join a main clause with a noun. Here's an example: "Squiggly missed only one friend: Aardvark." You couldn't use a semicolon in that sentence because the two parts are unequal.

One way that I remember this is to think of the different elements as railroad cars. (In my imagination it's the train in the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon “Conjunction Junction.”) I only use a semicolon if I'm joining two equal “boxcars.” If I'm joining two unequal elements, like a boxcar and a caboose, then I know that I can't use a semicolon, and I consider whether a colon makes sense. So equal sentence boxcars get a semicolon, and unequal sentence boxcars and cabooses often get a colon (or a dash). I have a full episode about how to use colons, so you can refer to that if you need more information.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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