Semicolon Rules: When to Use a Semicolon

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A Strange Dream

I had mastered teaching Greek and Latin Roots. I had created some of the best Romeo and Juliet lesson plans ever. I had taught students how to use commas. I felt good. Then I read their essays and realized they had no idea when to use a semicolon. I failed to teach them semicolon rules. I needed to punish myself, so I strapped a 12-volt battery to my eyelids, connected it to a car and awaited the pain. The shock knocked me out. When I awoke, there stood a giant, bearded semicolon, explaining to me how to explain semicolon rules. He then whacked me on the head with a stapler and knocked me out again.

When I awoke, a “when to use semicolons” lesson plan rested on my desk. Unfortunately, it was the principal’s car battery I had connected to my eyelids and he fired me the next morning. I never got to use my lesson plan.

But you can.

When to Use Semicolons

Use semicolons in the following ways:

  • separate items in a series if any of the items contains a comma.

    • Sharks love to eat shrimp, whales, and surfers; swim in the open ocean; and star in movies depicting blood, gore, and parades down main street.
  • to separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction if either of the independent clauses contains a comma.

    • I got lost outside of Denver last year; I got yelled at by my wife, laughed at by my son, and beat up by the paper boy.
  • to join two related independent clauses if no conjunction is used.

    • Some invest in a 401 (k); others invest in a Roth IRA.
  • before a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, hence, consequently), or a parenthetical expression, that joins the clauses of a compound sentence.

    • No one with common sense would actually cascade; therefore, a more correct description would be canyoning with only a rope used to hang yourself after you plummet thirty feet and lie in pain with a broken back on the canyon floor with no hope of rescue.


Prepare large strips of paper with the following:

  • 8 semicolons, 6 periods, 8 commas, 2 and, 1 however.

  • Write the following model sentences or come up with ones of your own. It’s best to use sentences from literary works you’ve taught or sentences about topics of interest.

    • Farm animals are adored by children
    • young ones look to them for comfort and love
    • Farm animals possess power and influence
    • they abuse this trust by breaking fences and tearing up lawns
    • Disobedient animals include pigs
    • sloppy critters who stink up the yard
    • sheep
    • incessant blabbers
    • bulls
    • fierce rib breakers


  • Discuss semicolon rules.

  • Instruct students to copy the rules in their notebook.

  • Hand out the sentence strips.

  • Instruct the possessors of two complete sentences to place them on the board side by side.

  • Discuss ways to combine sentences.

  • Discuss when to use a semicolon and instruct the student with a semicolon to place it in the appropriate spot.

  • Remove the two sentences and continue with the other semicolon rules, asking individual students to place their sentence, word, or punctuation in the appropriate spot.

  • The final result should look like this:

    • Farm animals are adored by children; young ones look to them for comfort and love. Farm animals possess power and influence; however, they abuse this trust by breaking fences and tearing up lawns. Disobedient animals include pigs, sloppy critters who stink up the yard; sheep, incessant blabbers; and bulls, fierce rib breakers.

This lesson was inspired by Bessie the Cow and Mini Lessons for Revision by Susan Geye, 1997, Absey & Co. Spring, TX.

Click here for a complete semester curriculum map for freshman English with lesson plans and links

This post is part of the series: Mechanics

Use a little creativity and watch your students' writing mechanics improve.

  1. Lesson Plan: How to Use Commas Correctly
  2. Lesson Plan: Using Semicolons
  3. Lesson Plan: Quotation Marks and Punctuation
  4. Lesson Plan: When to Use a Hyphen
  5. The Tragedy of MIsused Apostrophes
  6. Teach Your Class How to Use Parentheses (It’s Really Easy)