The Oatmeal calls semicolons “the most feared punctuation on earth”. If you’re afraid, don’t be! This lesson will be quick, easy, and solve your semicolon woes.

Join Independent Clauses

An independent clause is a complete thought with a subject and a verb; it can be a complete sentence. You can join independent clauses with either a comma and a coordinating conjunction, or with a semicolon

Comma and coordinating conjunction: Today we’re having lasagna for dinner, and I’m making apple pie for dessert.

Semicolon: Today we’re having lasagna for dinner; I’m making apple pie for dessert.

Comma and coordinating conjunction: Caitlin studies Russian literature, and she wants to be a professor.

Semicolon: Caitlin studies Russian literature; she wants to be a professor.

As you can see, both of these methods work, but sometimes one sounds better than the other.

Note: Sometimes, especially in lengthy sentences, writers use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction to avoid confusion.

Join Independent Clauses with a Conjunctive Adverb

This is the same principle as above. If your second independent clause starts with a conjunctive adverb, you can join it to the previous independent clause with a semicolon, not with a comma.

Trevor is a pizza fiend; however, he appears to be too full to eat the last slice.

The weather forecast is awful; therefore we’re going to stay home this weekend.

Reduce Confusion in Lists with Commas

Look at this sentence:

I invited Karim, my best friend from high school, Maryam, my next-door neighbour, her sister, Sarah, and Yael.

How many people did I invite? If you have no idea, you’re right. In sentences like this, where there are modifiers set off by commas, it’s best to use semicolons to separate the items on the list.

I invited Karim, my best friend from high school; Maryam, my next-door neighbour; her sister, Sarah; and Yael.

Now it’s obvious that I invited four people.

That was pretty painless, wasn’t it?

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