Semicolons: 3 places NOT to use them (and 2 that are okay!)

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Saturday is National Punctuation Day, and I’m probably a little too excited. If the majority of my students and clients are any indication, most people dread punctuation. It can be confusing, it uses a lot of rules, and it’s something that they feel like they’re getting wrong. It doesn’t have to be that way! When you know how sentences are put together, punctuation will come naturally between the phrases and clauses.

We’ll talk more about the relationship between punctuation and grammar on Saturday. For now, I want to count down the rest of the week with example-filled posts on confusing punctuation marks and where you should and shouldn’t put them.

As requested by one of my Twitter followers, I’m going to start with semicolons. What is a semicolon, anyway? Is it a cross between a period and a comma? Is it a cross between a colon and a comma? Is it simply a longer pause between words? The answer to all three of those questions is no! Let’s take a look at three places you shouldn’t use semicolons and two places you should.

#1: DON’T use a semicolon in place of a comma to make a longer pause.

A semicolon isn’t a hard comma, so don’t use it in a sentence like this:

“I wanted to know if she had bought the ice cream; so I asked her about it.”

Or like this:

“I decided we needed balloons; streamers; and music at the party.”

Both of these sentences should have stuck with commas. For one thing, you should use a comma when you have a coordinating conjunction between two clauses:

“I wanted to know if she had bought the ice cream, so I asked her about it.”

Also, with one exception that we’ll talk about later, you should separate list items with commas:

“I decided we needed balloons, streamers, and music at the party.”

#2: DON’T use a semicolon in place of a comma between a dependent and independent clause.

Semicolons aren’t appropriate between a dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence and the independent clause that makes up the heart of the sentence, so don’t do this:

“If you want to invite her to the party; send her an invitation.”

Or this:

“When the guests finally arrived; I was already tired enough to be longing for a nap.”

This is a place where there should always be a comma, so those sentences should actually look like this:

“If you want to invite her to the party, send her an invitation.”

And:

“When the guests finally arrived, I was already tired enough to be longing for a nap.”

#3: DON’T use a semicolon to introduce an idea or list.

A semicolon should not do a colon’s job in introducing an idea or list. It would be incorrect to write like this:

“Please bring the following to the meeting; a notepad, a pen, and an eager attitude.”

Or this:

“I had a great plan; running to the store on the way home so I could save time later.”

The correct punctuation mark here would be a colon, which would look like this:

“Please bring the following to the meeting: a notepad, a pen, and an eager attitude.”

And this:

“I had a great plan: running to the store on the way home so I could save time later.”

 

If you’re even tempted to use semicolons in one of those three places, don’t do it! Save them for these two situations:

 

#1: DO use a semicolon between two independent clauses.

An independent clause is, essentially, a sentence. It has a subject and verb and can stand alone without additional information. Sometimes, you’ll want to put two independent clauses within a single sentence. One way to do this is with a comma paired with a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so); the other way is by using a semicolon.

Correct example with a comma:

“It was time to eat lunch, so I hurried to finish my blog post.”

Same example with a semicolon:

“It was time to eat lunch; I hurried to finish my blog post.”

Remember the first “DON’T” in this case and refrain from writing, “It was time to eat lunch; so I hurried to finish my blog post.” If you’re using a semicolon, you should cut out both the comma and the conjunction.

#2: DO use a semicolon between list items when there is a comma within at least one of the list’s items.

Normally, you use commas to set apart items in a list when you’re writing:

“On my recent vacation, I visited London, Paris, and Berlin.”

When your list items include commas within themselves, though, they can get a little messy:

“On my recent vacation, I visited London, England, Paris, France, and Berlin, Germany.”

In this sentence, it sounds like the speaker visited six separate places, not just three city/country locations. A special exception to the semicolon rules applies here to fix this—separate the list items with semicolons, like this:

“On my recent vacation, I visited London, England; Paris, France; and Berlin, Germany.”

Even if only one item in the list has a comma in it, you should still use semicolons. For example:

“As a child, I enjoyed playing hide and seek; Duck, Duck, Gray Duck*; and tag.”

 

There you have it! Semicolons are surprisingly simple. If you stick to using them only in the “DO use” situations above, you’ll never have to worry about whether or not they’re appropriate in some other place in your sentence.

Let me know if you have any questions or need more examples! Otherwise, I’ll be back with more punctuation goodies for you tomorrow.

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*I am proudly Minnesotan, so I know that this is the game’s true name.

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