Semicolon Usage: The Three Functions of Semicolons in Written English

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Semicolons, like all punctuation marks, ensure clarity in written language by joining independent clauses and separating items in a list. Semicolons perform three basic functions.

Use semicolons to join to related independent clauses of equal emphasis. Clauses contain both a subject and a predicate. Independent clauses function as complete sentences. For example:

  • Winter storm conditions have made travel impossible; the roads are completely covered in snow and ice.
  • Low fat dairy products are highly nutritious snacks; skim milk and light cheese contain essential calcium and vitamin D but very little fat.

Join two independent clauses in which the second clause begins with an adverb or short parenthetical

Use semicolons to join two independent clauses in which the second clause begins with an adverb or short parenthetical that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. For example:

  • Dogs come in many different breeds; for example, the shih tzu is a toy or small breed, weighing only up to sixteen pounds.
  • I am afraid of flying on an airplane; thus, I have never traveled anywhere that I could not get to by car or train.
  • The storm last night was the worst ever for this area; however, classes were not canceled the next day at any of the schools.

Sentences starting with * are examples of what not to do.

Separate items that contain commas in a series

Use semicolons to separate items that contain commas in a series. Place a semicolon after each item in the series except for the last item. Place the last semicolon before the coordinating conjunction. Geographical locations are common items that contain commas that are written as series. For example:

  • Some of the most well-known cities in the United States include Chicago, Illinois; New York City, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Los Angeles, California.
  • The ingredients that we need to pick up at the store are eggs, flour, and sugar for the cake; honey, brown sugar, and vinegar for the ham; salt, butter, and pepper for the corn; and frozen fruit, whipped cream, mayonnaise, and coconut for the salad.

Do not use semicolons to separate items without commas in a series. For example:

  • *Cheddar cheese; skim milk; and ice cream are three of my favorite dairy products.
  • *The girl from the restaurant is extremely thin; very tall; and strikingly pretty.
  • *Athletes can run quickly; swim fast; and jump high.

Do not use semicolons to separate only two items that contain commas. For example:

  • *Indianapolis, Indiana; and Madison, Wisconsin are two cities to which my family travels frequently.
  • *Please grab cereal, milk, and bowls for breakfast; and bread, lunchmeat, and cheese for lunch.

For articles related to the use of semicolons in written English, please refer to:

The accompanying printable reference sheet of the rules for using colons in English is available for download at The Use of Semicolons in Written English Reference Sheet.