• 3-minute read
  • 26th June 2016

The Mystery of the Semicolon Finally Revealed!

We’re going to have a hard time living up to that title. In all honesty, semicolons aren’t very mysterious. They’re just what you get when you balance a full stop on top of a comma.

The semicolon is most famous for its starring role in ‘Winky Face ASCII Smiley’.

Despite this, the semicolon does seem to confuse many people, making it one of the most frequently misused punctuation points around.

But there’s no reason to fear the mysterious semicolon; after you’ve read our quick guide to this simple punctuation mark, you’ll be using them like a pro!

What is a Semicolon?

As hinted at above, semicolons combine the qualities of a comma and a full stop. This is reflected in the two main uses of the semicolon:

  1. To connect two related but distinct sentences
  2. To separate items in a list

In each case, the semicolon can be used in place of another punctuation mark to create more distinction between thoughts than a comma provides, but with more fluidity than if a full stop was used. Let’s see how this works in practice.

Connecting Two Independent Clauses

An independent clause is something which could be used as a sentence by itself. When written as separate sentences, each independent clause ends in a full stop:

I am King of the Otters. In fact, all semi-aquatic mammals obey my commands.


However, if we want to emphasise a connection between two independent clauses, we can place a semicolon between them:

I am King of the Otters; in fact, all semi-aquatic mammals obey my commands.

The use of a semicolon here implies that my ability to command aquatic rodents stems from my status as King of the Otters, rather than simply being a coincidence.

It’s worth remembering that semicolons aren’t typically used with conjunctions like ‘and’ or ‘but’, so the following would be incorrect:

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I am King of the Otters; and all semi-aquatic mammals obey my commands.

One exception is conjunctions like ‘however’, which you can use at the beginning of an independent clause:

I am not King of the Otters; however, I can command most other types of semi-aquatic mammal.

It’s also possible to use a semicolon before a conjunction if one of the independent clauses being joined contains a comma.

He’ll have your arm off as soon as look at you! [Photo: Peter Trimming]

Separating Items in a List

A comma is usually enough to separate items in a list, but occasionally you’ll need a semicolon instead. Specifically, we use semicolons when the items being listed already include commas.

For instance, when naming a city, it’s common to note the country afterwards (e.g. Melbourne, Australia). If we were to list several cities like this, however, it would look confusing:

I’ve been to four capital cities: London, England, Paris, France, Tokyo, Japan, and Sydney, Australia.

By using a semicolon to separate the items in this list, we can make it much clearer:

I’ve been to four capital cities: London, England; Paris, France; Tokyo, Japan; and Sydney, Australia.

Now we can see where each item in the list begins and ends.

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