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Semicolons

Think of semicolons as sentence splicers.

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #042
Semicolon

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.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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