The semicolon is an underutilized form of punctuation that can be a valuable tool for students who are uneasy about using it. It has two primary uses: its use as a soft period and its use a “super-coma” in a long list. Memorize these two simple rules and you will never question your semicolon use again.
1. Semicolon used as a soft period. The semicolon can be used to bring two separate but closely related statements together into one complete sentence. For example, “This could be one complete sentence; this could be another one.”
A common mistake is to put a comma where the semicolon is. This is called a comma splice and it is an error that all students must be able to recognize. SAT/ACT exams always have questions that test knowledge of the comma splice error. Students often get confused and put a comma instead of a semicolon because the second clause does not really look like a complete sentence. For example, “Fifty-two weeks are in one year; only eight remain.”
One exception to this rule is if there is a conjunction between the two clauses. If there is a conjunction such as “and” or “but,” a comma is used. For example, “this could be a complete sentence, and this could be another one.”
In each of these examples, a period could be used instead of a semicolon; however, a semicolon is preferred because it gives continuity between the independent clauses.
2. Semicolon used as a “super-comma” in a complicated list. A sentence containing a ton of commas can be really confusing. When writing a list or multiple clauses containing commas, use semicolons to separate each.
For example, “San Francisco, California; New York City, New York; and Boston, Massachusetts have the highest percentage of college degree holders of all American cities.”
The semicolons used above help the reader recognize the major groupings and bring clarity to the sentence overall.
That’s it! There are some other minor rules for using semicolons (which you should research on your own), but the two rules above will cover the majority of your semicolon use. Remember that punctuation is a powerful tool and slight changes can have a great impact on the meaning of your words. Understanding the basics of punctuation early in your academic career is important because it will make your future work clear and your readers happy!