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Semicolons | Return to Film Library

Einstein: Greetings! My name is Einstein. I’m here to answer all of your grammar questions. I just got a message from a boy named Jimmy.

Jimmy: Hey, Mr. E! Semicolons confuse me. How do I know when to use them? Thanks for your help.

Einstein: Yes, semicolons can be tricky. I am glad to be of help. Let’s get started. First, this is what the semicolon looks like; it looks kind of like a comma with a period on top.

Jimmy: OK, now that I know what a semicolon is, why should I use semicolons? And when should I avoid them?

Einstein: There are two important uses for semicolons. Number one: to separate items in a complicated list. Number two: to separate independent clauses in a sentence. Let’s first look at number one. Consider this sentence: “This summer you are traveling to Paris, France, London, England, and Rome, Italy.” Though commas are usually used to separate items in a complicated list, they are confusing here because they are also being used to separate the city from the country. It sounds like Paris and France are two different places that you are traveling to. We can make this sentence clearer and easier to read by using semicolons: “This summer you are traveling to Paris, France; London, England; and Rome, Italy.”

OK, now let’s look at rule number two. We can use semicolons to separate two independent clauses in a sentence. An independent clause is a clause in a sentence that could stand on its own as a complete sentence. For example: “Jimmy likes to dance although he cannot dance very well.” We can take the clause “Jimmy likes to dance” and take it out of the sentence. Jimmy likes to dance. It is an independent clause because it can stand on its own as a complete thought. However, the second clause “although he cannot dance very well” is a dependent clause. The word although is called a subordinating conjunction. Subordinating conjunctions are used to join a subordinate dependent clause to a main clause. Other examples of subordinate conjunctions are because, if, since, unless. Thus, we can see that the clause “although he cannot dance very well” is not a complete thought. This would also be the case if you used a coordinating conjunction: and, or, but, so, for. If we wrote “Jimmy likes to dance, but he cannot dance very well”, we would also use a comma and not a semicolon.

But what if the sentence were “Jimmy likes to dance he cannot dance very well”? In this case, it is incorrect to use a comma to separate the clauses because they are both independent clauses. He cannot dance very well. It can stand on its own as a complete sentence. If you tried to separate them with a comma (“Jimmy likes to dance, he cannot dance very well.”), you would be making an error called a comma splice. A comma splice can be fixed by using a period or a semicolon. You can use a period and turn these two independent clauses into two complete sentences. “Jimmy likes to dance. He cannot dance very well.” Or you can use a semicolon: “Jimmy likes to dance; he cannot dance very well.” And, Jimmy, this is what real dancing looks like.

Usually, you only want to use a semicolon to link two independent clauses that are closely related in thought. We can show how our independent clauses are related by using conjunctive adverbs along with the semicolon. English has many conjunctive adverbs. Here are several examples: “also, however, otherwise, consequently, indeed, similarly, finally, likewise, then, furthermore, moreover, therefore, hence, nevertheless, thus, nonetheless.” Unlike subordinating conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs can join two main clauses. Let’s use one of these in our example sentence: “Jimmy likes to dance; however, he cannot dance very well.” Notice that “however, he cannot dance very well” is still an independent clause because it could stand on its own as a complete sentence. Notice that you place a semicolon before the conjunctive adverb and a comma after the conjunctive adverb.

Well, Jimmy, I hope all this info helps you. That’s about all you need to know about semicolons.

Jimmy: That helped a lot. Thanks.

Einstein: I am glad I could be of help. Thanks for watching. Bye for now.