November 10 2009

Using the semicolon properly

by Barbie in Grammar

Whether we are editing dissertations, novels, or business documents, there is one error that we consistently find – misuse of the semicolon. This underused punctuation mark is often easier to use than the comma or colon because it is most frequently used in one of three ways.

1) To connect independent clauses not joined by a conjunction

If your sentence includes two independent clauses, meaning each clause can stand alone as a complete sentence, and they are not joined by a conjunction, then separate these clauses using a semicolon. (Check out our previous post about independent clauses joined by a conjunction.)

Example: Some people will call in their order; others will order online.

2) To connect independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb.

When your sentence includes two independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb like “however,” “therefore,” or “thus,” use a semicolon before the adverb.

Example: Rain is predicted for Saturday; however, the picnic remains scheduled.

3) To separate items in a series when those items include commas

If your sentence includes items in a series with multiple commas, use a semicolon to distinguish these items.

Example: The menu choices include beef, chicken, or steak; potatoes, rice, or cole slaw; and broccoli, corn, or green beans.

Generally, if your sentence requires a semicolon, it is in one of these three circumstances.