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Write Clearly: Punctuation

What is a semicolon?

A semicolon is a punctuation mark (;) that allows writers to join separate but related ideas. Semicolons are considered stronger than commas (they can join complete sentences) but less final than periods.

1. Use a semicolon to separate independent clauses

Use a semicolon to separate independent clauses (complete sentences) that are closely related in meaning and are not joined by a coordinating conjunction. 

Example: 

  • Mary wishes to major in English literature; (semicolon)her identical twin wishes to major in philosophy.

2. Use a semicolon before conjunctive adverbs

Use a semicolon to separate independent clauses joined by conjunctive adverbs (such as however, therefore, moreover, nevertheless, then, thus).
 
Example: 

  • Ernest Hemingway was a master of style; (semicolon)however, (comma)opinions about his work vary widely.

Note: The semicolon remains between the two clauses, even when the conjunctive adverb is moved.

Examples: 

  • Ernest Hemingway was a master of style; (semicolon)opinions about his work, (comma)however, (comma)vary widely.
  • Ernest Hemingway was a master of style; (semicolon)opinions about his work vary widely, (comma)however.

3. Use a semicolon to separate long elements

Use a semicolon to separate phrases or clauses in a series or list if the items are long or contain internal punctuation.

Examples:

  • We can help clean up the environment if we avoid littering, (comma)polluting, (comma)and using throwaway containers; (semicolon)protest against dangers to the environment by writing to local, (comma)provincial, (comma)and federal representatives; (semicolon)and cultivate green spaces by planting trees and gardens.

     

  • Jordon went on a trip with Fred, (comma)their uncle; (semicolon)Susanna, (comma)their sister; (semicolon)Biff, (comma)their dog; (semicolon)and Margarite, (comma)their mother.
    • Note: The pronouns they, them, their, and theirs are acceptable as plural pronouns and as singular non-gendered pronouns. In the above example, Jordon uses the non-gendered pronouns they, them, their, and theirs. 

Remember to use a semicolon before the final ‘and.’

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