Punctuation: Semicolon Rules

Uncertain about semicolon rules? The semicolon, a commonly misused form of punctuation, actually functions like a weak period rather than like a strong comma.

The semicolon is used to separate coordinate elements, usually independent clauses. It functions more like a weak period than like a strong comma.

1. Use a semicolon between independent clauses if the clauses are closely related, but not joined by a coordinating conjunction or a correlative.

EXAMPLE

You should apply for that job; you have the qualifications, and you are not happy in your present job.

2. When the second of two independent clauses begins with a conjunctive adverb, use a semicolon rather than a comma between them.

EXAMPLES

I had no intention of attending the wedding; nevertheless, I did send a card and a gift.

The Chinese government will not permit the sale of a giant panda; however, sometimes one will be lent to another country as a goodwill gesture.



You have not completed all of the courses required up to this point; therefore, you will have to take summer classes if you hope to graduate with your classmates next May.

2. If two independent clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction, but are quite long or contain a lot of internal punctuation, a semicolon may be used to separate them, in order to avoid confusion.

EXAMPLE

Many of the candidates, particularly the third party candidates, were virtually excluded from media coverage; but the more enterprising ones--for example, Eileen Smith (the Green Party candidate) and Lance Richards (the Libertarian candidate)--managed to stir up publicity with aggressive confrontations of the major parties' candidates.

3. When the elements in a series are long and complex, especially if they contain internal punctuation, a semicolon may be used to ensure clarity.

EXAMPLE

She left for her meeting in Detroit on Thursday, just before dawn; arrived at the hotel twenty minutes too late to catch the bus that had been arranged for the conference participants; tried but failed to hail a cab; finally managed to contact the conference director by cell phone; and left shortly after midnight to return to Lexington, without ever having managed to attend even one of the events she had traveled all the way to Michigan to participate in.

4. Because a semicolon ordinarily serves the same function as a period, it is normally used between independent clauses. Only rarely and under certain circumstances can it be used to separate elements that are not independent clauses (as in the preceding example). In most instances, using a semicolon to set off a phrase or a dependent clause results in a "semicolon fault," also called a "semicolon fragment."

--WRONG--

The next meeting is not scheduled until June; because several members of the executive committee are otherwise occupied until then.

--CORRECT--

The next meeting is not scheduled until June because several members of the executive committee are otherwise occupied until then.

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