If you avoid using semicolons through fear of getting it wrong – this one’s for you! It's time to clear things up and get semicolons nailed for good, in the last of my Punctuation Pointers blog series.
The good news is that you could probably get away with never using a semicolon in your life and still be grammatically correct. However, when you know how to use them properly, a well-placed semicolon can transform a sentence – adding impact and reinforcing it’s meaning.
Semicolons can be broken down into two main groups:
1) Semicolons to separate independent clauses
2) Semicolons in a list
1) Separating independent clauses
A semicolon is used to create a strong link between two clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences.
You could, of course, use a full stop. But by separating them with a semicolon instead, you are saying to the reader, 'These two sentences are really closely related to each other; they complement each other!'
Also, a block of text with lots of short sentences can feel choppy and stilted. That may be the style you’re going for, which is fine. But if not, consider if using a semicolon would be appropriate to improve the flow for your reader.
The crucial thing to remember here is that they must be able to stand alone as complete sentences in their own right. If one is not then, to keep things grammatically correct, you should really use a comma or conjunction (e.g. and, or, as, yet, etc.) instead.
I love the semicolon; it can really add something to a sentence.
I love the semicolon and use it all the time.
2) Semicolons in a list
In most cases, items in a list are separated by commas: tree, leaf, flower, etc. However, if your list includes longer items which already contain a comma within themselves, then a semicolon should be used instead.
For example, 'The shopping list includes apples, potatoes and strawberries from the market; steak and sausages from the butchers; and milk, cheese and eggs from the corner shop.'
Semicolon or colon?
Colons are used to introduce a list, e.g. 'I have three favourite colours: red, blue and green.' Don’t be tempted to substitute it for a semicolon.
Colons are used to introduce a definition or explanation. For example, 'There is only one rule: there are no rules!' (Yes, these two are standalone sentences, but the second is defining the first, so colon.)