Understanding the Semicolon

Hey everyone! Today, I’d like to guide you through the usage of semicolons! But first, let’s define what they are.

What is a semicolon? 
A semicolon (;) is a piece of punctuation that marks a pause longer than a comma, but shorter than a period’s pause. It, for the most part, has two uses—to join two independent clauses (aka sentences) or to act as a ‘super’ comma. 


Joining two independent clauses (sentences) 
A semicolon acts like glue between two separate thoughts. It can join relating sentences or sentences that act in contrast; these are the two best times to use them. While you can join nearly any sentence and still be grammatically correct, you shouldn’t join sentences that don’t relate to each other. Also, you don’t have to capitalize any word after a semicolon unless its a proper noun (i.e. California).

✓ The city’s usual hustling noise screeched to a haul; the power went out.
✗ I enjoyed the movie; I ate pie yesterday.
✓ I enjoyed the movie; it reminded me of the pie I ate a few hours before.

These sentences may be complex and may have additional clauses to them when you join them.

✓ When my boss quit, the office went into a panic; I was late once again to the Thursday bar-b-que.

However, you can’t use a semicolon with a conjunction. You must use a comma with a conjunction only. Sticking a semicolon with a conjunction is like trying to use a comma and period together; it just doesn’t work.

✗ The children must stay inside; but the adults may go outside.
✓ The children must stay inside, but the adults may go outside.

But, you can edit this sentence to add a semicolon:
The children must stay inside; however, the adults may go outside.


Acting as a ‘Super’ Comma
Have you ever wanted to create a long list with a clause (phrase that isn’t a complete sentence) describing each item and not known how to do it? Now you can with the help of your friend, the semicolon!

What not to do: She bought oranges, fresh from the store, bananas, a little green, and milk, a staple of her diet.

Why can’t you do this? It’s confusing and hard to tell what is the item and which item the clauses are describing (clauses in the sentence: “fresh from the store,” a little green,” and “a staple of her diet”).

What to do instead: She bought oranges, fresh from the store; bananas, a little green; and milk, a staple of her diet.

Here, you can tell that the oranges are fresh from the store and that the bananas are a little green. The semicolon goes after the item and its descriptive clause.


TL;DR Review 
– A semicolon joins two related sentences together
– Don’t use with a conjunction
– No need to capitalize any word after it unless it needs to be capitalized anyway
– Limit your use. Semicolons are like a prom dress/suit; you don’t wear it around everywhere.
– You can use them to separate an item in a series and its descriptive clause


Quiz!
Which sentence is incorrect and how would you correct it? Comment your answer below.

#1 The city’s usual hustling noise screeched to a halt; the power went out.
#2 When we pulled up to the gas station; the man met us outside, he had a matted beard with bits of food in it.

Image Credit
Lauren Mancke

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