Today, friends and frenemies (we know you’re out there), we’re looking at the semicolon, including when this punctuation mark should be used in formal writing (i.e. not for making emoticons wink). We’ll also take a look at the difference between semicolons and colons.
Using a Semicolon to Link Sentences
The main use of the semicolon is to link two sentences. This emphasizes a connection between independent clauses that would otherwise be separated by a period. For instance, the following sentences work by themselves:
My favorite food is spam. I spend a fortune on tinned meat.
However, we could link them with a semicolon to show that they are connected:
My favorite food is spam; I spend a fortune on tinned meat.
This makes it obvious that my love of spam and my meat expenses are related.
Linking sentences like this is common when the second sentence starts with a conjunctive adverb (e.g., “however” or “furthermore”) or a transition phrase (e.g., “as a result”):
I love spam; consequently, I eat it for every meal.
As above, this emphasizes the connection between the two statements.
Generally speaking, you shouldn’t use a semicolon before conjunctions like “but” or “and,” although they can be used for clarity if either of the clauses being joined contains a comma.
Using Semicolons in a List
The second important use of semicolons is to separate items in a list. Usually, commas are enough for short, simple lists (like the following):
The menu offered four choices: spam, eggs, grits or pancakes.
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However, if the listed items are more complex and already include commas, using semicolons to distinguish between them aids clarity: