The semicolon–chronically misused and hopelessly misunderstood, this handy punctuation mark often goes under-utilized. If you want to be a semicolon master, look for these six grammar scenarios.
1) Connecting Clauses
A semicolon is used to connect two independent clauses that could easily stand by themselves, but make more sense put together. This could be used to complete an idea, clarify a thought, or show contrast between two things.
Example: Traveling is awesome; it’s an opportunity to experience other cultures.
Here, I am completing the thought on why traveling is awesome. If I split these clauses apart, they would make two complete sentences, but due to their related nature, they read better when they are connected. Adding semicolons during editing is a good way to vary your sentence length and structure if you tend to write in short thoughts.
2) No Coordinating Conjunction
You would not use a semicolon if a coordinating conjunction is present. Coordinating conjunctions include: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These connecting words can be used in many ways, but when linking two main clauses you would choose a comma, rather than a semicolon.
Example: Traveling is awesome, and it’s an opportunity to experience other cultures.
Think of a comma as a minor pause and a semicolon as a moderate pause. Conjunctions act as pause words themselves and don’t need punctuation assistance from a semicolon to slow the reader down.
3) Run on and on and on…
Semicolons are also helpful to avoid run-on sentences that rely too heavily on a single comma, also known as comma splices.
Example: Traveling is awesome, it’s a way to explore new cultures.
This is a run-on sentence. To determine if you need a semicolon, ask yourself three questions: can these clauses stand as separate sentences, is there no coordinating conjunction, and did I use a comma? If the answer to these questions is yes, you have a comma splice. Revise with a semicolon.
4) Transitional Phrases
Coordinating conjunctions use commas. Avoiding run-on sentences requires semicolons. Using a transitional phrase (as a matter of fact, for instance, after all, etc.) or a conjunctive adverb (meanwhile, however, besides, instead, etc.) require both a semicolon and a comma.
Example: Traveling is awesome; in fact, it’s one of my favorite activities.
Use the semicolon to separate your two main clauses and place your comma after the transitional expression.
If you make a list, a semicolon should be used between items that require commas, such as places, dates, or anything requiring additional description.
Example: My favorite places to travel include Bonaire, an island in the southern Caribbean; Ohio, the place I grew up; and my bed, the place I go every night (and sometimes during the day) to sleep.
Using only commas to separate the items in the list and their descriptors would place too many into your sentence and readers will lose track of which words are modified by which clauses and how it all connects to the beginning of your sentence.
And, of course, we can’t forget the most important usage of the semicolon… forming the winking emoji!
See? Who said grammar couldn’t be fun!