A semicolon is a punctuation mark commonly used in English to punctuate complex sentences. It looks like this:


We might use a semicolon in a sentence to make our writing clearer by separating two closely related, independent clauses. They’re also used to punctuate and break up sentences in place of a conjunctive.

What’s the difference between a colon and a semicolon?

Getting colons and semicolons mixed up is one of the most common mistakes that pupils make in primary education. Luckily, telling the two apart is pretty straightforward on a purely visual level. Colons look like two full stops on top of each other, while a semicolon looks like a full stop on top of a comma.

However, the main difference between colons and semicolons isn’t the way they look but how they are used. Check out this table below to see the different uses of these two punctuation marks:

Semicolon uses Colon uses
The punctuation mark that can be inserted into a sentence The punctuation mark that can be inserted into a sentence
A semicolon is used within a sentence to separate major sentence elements A colon is a punctuation mark used in a sentence to indicate that something is about to follow it.
Semicolons can be used to break up a list of items. In most lists, it’s enough to use commas to separate the items. Colons can also be used to expand a sentence or to introduce a quotation, an example, or a list.
Colons have non-grammatical uses for writing time and ratios  

How do you use a semicolon in a sentence?

So, hopefully, you now have a good idea of what a semicolon is; you are probably wondering ‘what is a semicolon used for?’ Let’s explore different ways how to use a semicolon in our writing. Since semicolons are one of those punctuation marks that are often misused, learners must be aware of their proper usage. That’s why we’ve made this guide with examples of how to use a semicolon.

Here’s a list of four typical ways in which we can use a semicolon; let’s explore them all in detail:

1) Joining two independent clauses in a sentence

When we’re thinking about how to use a semicolon in a sentence, one of the most common ways is to join two sentences or independent clauses together. Semicolon punctuation marks are handy when you want to clarify and simplify your writing or even change the tone of a sentence:

‘I like oranges. Grace likes pears.’

‘I like oranges; Grace likes pears.’

As we can see from this example, joining these two separate sentences together creates a juxtaposition between what the two people like. But, of course, there are plenty of other reasons we might do this, including for dramatic effect.

When you connect two clauses like this, it’s important to remember that the second independent clause no longer needs a capital letter. It’s now one sentence instead of two.

2) Removing a conjunction

Like the first example, this way, you are still using a semicolon to show a connection between two independent sentences. However, this time you’re using the semicolon to break up a single sentence rather than merge two. For example:

‘I’m going to buy some new shoes, and my mum wants to buy a spatula.’

‘I’m going to buy some new shoes; my mum wants to buy a spatula.’

Replacing a conjunction with a semicolon works because meetings are also used to link two independent clauses. This could be a handy swap in writing, as semicolons are a great way to show the contrast between two independent clauses. So if you are using a conjunction (‘but,’ ‘and’ or ‘or’) in a sentence, occasionally think about replacing it with a semicolon to bring the two halves of the sentence closer together.

3) Breaking up a list

Another common way to use a semicolon in a sentence is to break up a list of items. In most lists, it’s enough to use commas to separate the items. However, some more complete lists should be punctuated with semicolons to make a list clear to the reader. For example:

  • John, the baker;
  • Jasmine, the police officer;
  • Toby, the architect.

And written simply in a sentence, it looks like this: ‘John, the baker; Jasmine, the police officer; and Toby, the architect.’This helps the reader by showing them that the names and roles are linked, so they know John is the baker. Without the semicolon, the list could be about six different people (‘John, the baker, Jasmine, the police officer, Toby, the architect’) because there is no distinction between the items in the list.

4) Connecting ideas

We might also use semicolons alongside a conjunctive adverb (such as however, instead, therefore, and meanwhile) when we want to connect two ideas in a sentence.

If a conjunctive adverb is used to link two sentences, a semicolon must be used before the conjunctive adverb. For example:

  • ‘Sam spent three hours in the library; however, he couldn’t find the book he wanted.’
  • ‘She wanted pizza for tea; instead, her mum cooked vegetables.’
  • ‘He finished his homework; therefore, he’s free to go to the cinema.’

A comma must also be used after the conjunctive adverb because it’s introducing a new clause.

A helpful way to remember to include a semicolon in a sentence such as this is to remember that you’re connecting two independent clauses.

Even if you separated the two clauses and kept the conjunctive adverb, you could create two sentences that both make sense. For instance:

  • ‘Sam spent three hours in the library; however, he couldn’t find the book he wanted.’

Common mistakes when using semicolons

Now that we know how to use a semicolon in a sentence, let’s review some essential semicolon faux pas. First, when pupils first learn how to use semicolons, it’s common for them to make mistakes, and that’s completely natural!

So, as well as three common ways to use semicolons, let’s explore three ways in which they might be misused and how we might avoid them:

1) Overusing the semicolon punctuation mark

A common mistake is overusing the semicolon. After learning how to use a semicolon in a sentence, it can be tempting for pupils to get over-eager in introducing a new form of punctuation into their writing.

For example, pupils may use a semicolon when joining independent and dependent clauses.

2) Confusing the semicolon with the colon

Even though they might have learned how to use a semicolon, getting them mixed up with colons can still be accessible. For example, they might use a semicolon instead of a colon to introduce a list.

To help your pupils, ensure they’ve been taught what the two punctuation marks look like and the differences in how we use them.

3) Using semicolons and conjunctions together

Conjunctions are words used to link together two independent clauses, and some examples include and, but, or, etc.

But because both semicolons and conjunctions serve the same purpose of joining independent clauses, they should not be used together. This means that when a semicolon is used, the meeting should be removed if it is present. For example:

‘I saw a seagull at the beach the other day.’

‘I was at the beach the other day; I saw a seagull.’

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