The Remedy of the Week: Semicolons

Each week Hannah discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she explores the uses of the semicolon. 

The punctuation predicament

The semicolon is a punctuation mark that many people feel unsure when to use. Friends tell me that they just stick one in when they feel like it, to make their writing look more interesting or more professional.

Many of us were so encouraged to employ semicolons during exams, to demonstrate our full range of punctuation prowess, that we still feel the need to liberally sprinkle them into our writing, without being entirely certain that we're using them correctly. 

So when should a semicolon be used? Are they even necessary in these times where punctuation is being used more and more sparingly?

Linking independent clauses

A semicolon marks a break that is stronger than a comma, but weaker than a full stop. 

The main function of a semicolon is to link two independent clauses which are semantically related. An independent clause is one which can stand alone as a sentence and still be grammatically correct. 

A full stop separates ideas. A semicolon links ideas. (two separate independent clauses)

A full stop separates ideas; a semicolon links them. (two linked independent clauses)

Here, the semicolon allows the writer to show that two clauses are closely linked and that they are to be considered together. The clauses may complement or juxtapose each other, or a clause may simply give more information about the clause it follows.


Independent clauses can also be linked using conjunctions such as 'and' or 'but'. Whether to use semicolons in these cases is purely a style choice. Some writers think it unnecessary, but others may choose to use semicolons, particularly if the clauses are complex.

Mary, who was busy celebrating her thirtieth birthday, did not attend the meeting; but John, who had just returned from France, made sure he was there.

Subordinate clauses

However, a semicolon is not used to link subordinate clauses (those which cannot stand alone) and main clauses.

Because this is not a main clause, a semicolon is not needed. (subordinate clause followed by independent clause)

In this example, 'because this is not a main clause' cannot stand alone; it is a subordinate clause. As such, a comma is used to separate the two clauses.


Semicolons are also useful to separate complex items in a list. When elements of a list themselves contain commas, semicolons can be used to mark a stronger boundary.

Students may bring a clear pencil case containing pens, pencils, a ruler and an eraser; a scientific calculator; a clear plastic bottle, with the label removed; and a wrist watch. 

Using semicolons in such contexts enables the writer to show the semantic link between components and makes lists easier for the reader to comprehend.

The remedy

Are you connecting two main clauses without a conjunction? Use a semicolon!

Are you connecting two independent clauses with a conjunction? Up to you!

Will it help disambiguate a list? Use semicolons!