Something about the semicolon seems to trip people up. Maybe it’s the shape: the little round head and tail like a snake. I’m not sure.
At any rate, here are a few basic examples of when to use the semicolon.
Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses not joined with a conjunction, such as:
- The house standing on the hill was my grandmother’s; my earliest childhood memories are there.
Semicolons are not used with simple coordinate conjunctions (and, or, but); however, a semicolon is used with a conjunctive adverb to join two independent clauses (like I just did and as in the example below).
- The moon shined bright and full in the sky with no hint of a problem; nonetheless, Roger was still convinced he was a werewolf.
Use the semicolon to separate lists already including commas:
- This week’s menu offered choices of tuna, salmon, and cod; peas, Brussels sprouts, and okra; rice, bulgur, and couscous.
Sometimes, a list with many commas can become confusing to read; for instance, when items in a list are described and commas are used in the description. Here’s what I mean:
- I own four pets: a fat, lazy cat; a playful, energetic Labrador; a noisy, squawking parakeet; and a turtle.
In this example, if only commas were used, the whole list would jumble together, making it harder to read:
- I own four pets: a fat, lazy cat, a playful, energetic Labrador, a noisy, squawking parakeet, and a turtle. (Huh?)
A common semicolon mistake:
My final thought is a common mistake I see. Semicolons are not used to introduce lists; colons are used to introduce lists. For example:
- The party finally started with the arrival of Kennedy and her friends: Ginger, Rebecca, Alice, Shane, Jebediah, and Frank.
The colon introduces the names of Kennedy’s friends. A semicolon never introduces a list in this way.