Tips from the Professor

Semicolons can feel a little confusing because sometimes they’re used to separate items in a series, as mentioned on the previous page, but they are really nothing like a comma. In terms of sentence structure, they can separate independent clauses, just like a period.

If you have the habit of using a semicolon like a comma, it’s important to work to break that habit. When you edit your writing, it’s a good idea to circle all of the semicolons you have used. Then, ask yourself why each semicolon is there. If you’re using it like a strong comma, you’ll need to revise.

The following video from the Grammar Professor can help you if you continue to struggle with semicolons.

Video Transcript


Student: I am really confused about semicolons. I thought they were kind of like strong commas, but, I guess that’s not right. I had one teacher tell me not to use them at all. Can you please explain?

Professor: Sure! The semicolon has two functions: to separate two independent clauses or complete sentences and to separate items in a series when the items in the series contain commas.

Student: I think that makes sense, but can you give me an example?

Professor: Definitely. Let’s take a look at this sentence:

I went to the store to buy the newest game for my console; however, the game was sold out.

In this sentence, the semicolon is used to separate two independent clauses. Here, the semicolon functions a lot like a period without having the hard “stop” of a period.

The semicolon separates the two sentences but tells readers they are closely connected.

And, here is an example of a sentence where the semicolon separates items in a series that already contains commas.

When we traveled to the Grand Canyon, we met people from Boston, Massachusetts; Orlando, Florida; and Portland, Oregon.

Student: OK, that helps. Which use will be more common for me?

Professor: Usually, when you have the opportunity to use a semicolon in your writing, it will be using the semicolon in the first function—to separate two independent clauses.

Student: But, if a semicolon is so much like a period, how do you know when you should use a semicolon and when you should use a period?

Professor: You will want to think about content and the effect of your punctuation choice. When you use a semicolon instead of a period to separate two independent clauses, you are making a connection in the content of the two sentences. The period makes a solid stop and separation, whereas, the semicolon makes a softer pause and shows connectivity.

Student: Thanks! This is a great help! I now know the semicolon is not like a strong comma at all. I feel better about using them when I write.

This presentation was brought to you by the Excelsior Online Writing Lab.

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