Semicolons – how to use them

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Semicolons – definition

semicolons The semicolon [ ; ] marks a long pause in a sentence.

redbtn It is half way between a comma and a colon.


Neither of us spoke; we merely waited to see what would happen.

He usually took great care; even so he made a few errors.

Four objects lay on the desk: a large book; a spiral-bound notepad; a glass vase containing flowers; and a silver propelling pencil.


redbtn Semicolons are used between clauses which could stand alone, but which are closely related.

redbtn They are also used to punctuate lists in continuous prose writing.

redbtn NB! If you’re in any doubt about the semicolon – don’t use it.

redbtn The semicolon marks a pause which is longer than a comma, but not as long as a colon. This is a subtle distinction.

redbtn It is most commonly used between clauses which could be expressed as separate sentences, but which have some logical connection.

redbtn For instance, in the following example there could be a full stop after ‘England’:

Rutland was formerly the smallest county in England; no other area in the land was famous for so little.

redbtn The semicolon is used to avoid ambiguity in sentences composed of phrases of different length and a mixed content:

The Chairman welcomed the President, Dr Garvey; the Vice-President Mr Barncroft and his wife; several delegates from the United States; and members of the public who had been invited to attend.

redbtn Because the semicolon may be used instead of a full stop, some people use it without discrimination. They connect clause after clause with semicolons where no real link exists between them. This creates grammatical confusion and very poor style.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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