How to use a semicolon

Two simple tips for using the semicolon correctly…semicolon

You can think of the semicolon as a strong comma or a weak full stop. That’s probably why it looks like a full stop floating above a comma.

This is one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks (after the apostrophe). You can probably get through life without ever having to use it, especially if you don’t plan to write any fiction. But used accurately, the semicolon can be useful.

1. Use the semicolon to join two complete sentences into a single sentence

Take these two sentences:

John wrote the report. It is a masterpiece.

To join them together, it is grammatically incorrect to simply replace the full stop with a comma – this is called a comma splice. What you can do is use a semicolon or dash.

John wrote the report; it is a masterpiece.
John wrote the report – it is a masterpiece.

2. Use the semicolon to break up a complex list

For simple lists, the comma is enough to separate each list item. For more complicated list items, using the semicolon can be clearer:

The annual report stated that the company’s three main objectives are: to grow sales revenue by 15%; to cut manufacturing costs by reducing wastage, raw material costs and lead times; and to expand geographically within Eastern Europe.

You can also format the sentence above as a bulleted or numbered list:

The annual report stated that the company’s three main objectives are:

  • to grow sales revenue by 15%;
  • to cut manufacturing costs by reducing wastage, raw material costs and lead times; and
  • to expand geographically within Eastern Europe.

Note the position of the semicolon stays the same as in the non-bulleted version – after each list item and before the joining word on the penultimate point.

Jakki

PS Do you or your organisation need help with writing skills? I offer business writing courses and one-to-one coaching as well as writing consultancy services.

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