semicolon (punctuation)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Richard Hodges, The English Primrose (1644). (Fotosearch/Getty Images)


The semicolon is a mark of punctuation ( ; ) most commonly used to separate independent clauses that share the same general idea(s). The semicolon suggests a closer connection between the clauses than a period does.

English author Beryl Bainbridge described the semicolon as "a different way of pausing, without using a full stop."

Semicolons still appear fairly often in academic writing; however, they have fallen out of fashion in less formal kinds of prose.

"You would do well to keep semicolons at a minimum," advises Associated Press editor Rene Cappon.

"Unlike many of the other punctuation marks," says Martin Manser, "there is no occasion on which the semicolon cannot be replaced by another form of punctuation or sentence construction" (Good Word Guide, 2008).

That said, semicolons still come in handy when we need to separate items in a series containing commas

See Examples and Rules & Observations below. Also see:


  • "A banana tree isn't a tree at all; it's the world's largest herb."
    (Dan Koeppel, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. Hudson Street Press, 2008)
  • "Happiness isn't something you experience; it's something you remember."
    (Oscar Levant)
  • "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
    (L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953) 
  • "Volleyball games resume on the sand flat; someone fires up the sauna; in the long dusk, at eleven o'clock, half a dozen beach fires people the shore."
    (Annie Dillard, "Mirages")
  • "We lavish on animals the love we are afraid to show to people. They might not return it; or worse, they might."
    (Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic's Notebook. Castle Books, 1981)
  • "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."
    (Peter Drucker)
  • "States that balance their budgets on the backs of their public universities are not eating their seed corn; they're trampling it into the mud."
    (William Deresiewicz, "Faulty Towers." The Nation, May 23, 2011)
  • "With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it's a useful little chap."
    (Abraham Lincoln)
  • "Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education."
    (Mark Twain)
  • "One could always change the channel while Ya Ya was watching TV; there was no need to even ask. She could go from the State of the Union Address to a Bullwinkle cartoon without ever noticing the difference."
    (David Sedaris, "Get Your Ya-Ya's Out." Naked. Little, Brown and Company, 1997)
  • "Below them stretched the brown cliffs, with a strip of sand at the bottom strewn with the wreckage of a disused quarry: a rotten wooden landing stage; two lopsided trucks; rusted rails, broken and uneven, leading to nothing."
    (Edmund Crispin, Holy Disorders, 1945)
  • "The angled umbrellas, canes, and rolled newspapers of Frank's grim financiers are non-functional, wands of office; they are used to measure distance, to maintain a decent interval between intimate strangers competing for the same destination."
    (Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory. Granta Books, 1997)
  • "Everything about our sessions pleased me: the smallness of the room; the noise of the janitor's broom hitting the edge of the long hallway outside the door; the green of the sun, lighting the wall; and the old woman's face blurred white with a beard."
    (Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, 1982)
  • "Part of the appeal of going to a small, not-so-good college is that a certain percentage of the professors are quite insane, and therefore colorful. It's my opinion, having attended one of these colleges myself, that of those professors who were insane, the demographics broke down something like this: one third had always been insane; one third had been professors at other, better colleges, where they went insane and were sent down to the minors; and the final third were just insane people faking their professor-ness."
    (Michael J. Nelson, "Did He Say 'Meep'?" Mike Nelson's Mind Over Matters. HarperCollins, 2002)
  • "There are the children who make those delightful, hilarious, sometimes astonishingly grave overtures of friendship in the unpredictable fashion of children; other children, having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish as I approach. Some of the older women never pass without a friendly greeting, never pass, indeed, if it seems that they will be able to engage me in conversation; other women look down or look away or rather contemptuously smirk."
    (James Baldwin, "Stranger in the Village." Notes of a Native Son. Beacon Press, 1955)
  • "In 1965, eighteen states observed Daylight Saving, so that their clocks ran one hour ahead of Standard Time for six months of the year; eighteen other states half-heartedly participated, which meant that the clocks in some cities and towns in these states ran one hour ahead of Standard Time for periods ranging from three to six months every year and some didn't; twelve states did not practice Daylight Saving at all, keeping their clocks one hour behind the clocks in the observant states; and in areas of Texas and North Dakota, local residents adopted 'daylight in reverse,' so that their clocks ran one hour behind Standard Time, and two hours behind Daylight Saving Time."
    (Michael Downing, Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005)
  • "The air was full of the scent of growing things; strange, shy creatures came and went about him as he walked; down in the woods a nightingale had begun to sing; and there was something grandly majestic in the huge bulk of the castle as it towered against the sky. But Baxter had temporarily lost his sense of smell; he feared and disliked the strange, shy creatures; the nightingale left him cold; and the only thought the towering castle inspired in him was that it looked as if a fellow would need half a ton of dynamite to get into it."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Leave It to Psmith, 1923)


Rules & Observations

  • "The semi-colon is useful when you need a sentence to shift or surprise; to be modified or amended; it allows a generosity, lyricism and ambiguity to creep into the sentence structure. So, yes, it can also be the sign of a self-indulgent writer and should be used with care."
    (Irish author Anne Enright, quoted by Jon Henley in "The End of the Line?" The Guardian, April 4, 2008)
  • Using Semicolons to Separate Items in a List
    - "Use semicolons to separate items in a list that contains commas.

    "Normally we use commas to separate items in a list:
    We need paper, pens, ink, and computer discs.
    However, if items in the list contain commas, use semicolons to separate items to prevent confusion:
    The governor will meet with Vicki Shimi, the mayor of Bayview; Sandy Bert, the new city manager; the district attorney; Peter Plesmid; and Al Leone, an engineering consultant.
    The governor will meet with five people."
    (Mark Connelly, Get Writing: Sentences and Paragraphs, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2014)

    - "Below them stretched the brown cliffs, with a strip of sand at the bottom strewn with the wreckage of a disused quarry: a rotting wooden landing stage; two lopsided trucks; rusted nails, broken and uneven, leading to nothing."
    (Edmund Crispin [Bruce Montgomery], Holy Disorders, 1945)
  • The Decline of Semicolons
    "Frank McCourt, the author and former English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, describes the semicolon as the yellow traffic light of a New York sentence. In response, most New Yorkers accelerate; they don't pause to contemplate.

    "In literature and journalism, to say nothing of advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.

    "Especially by Americans.

    "We prefer shorter sentences without, as stylebooks advise, that distinct division between statements that are closely related but require a separation more prolonged than a conjunction and more emphatic than a comma. . . .

    "'When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life,' Kurt Vonnegut once said. 'Old age is more like a semicolon.'

    "New York City public schools are supposed to introduce semicolons to students in the third grade. But let's be frank. Whatever your personal feelings about them, some people don't use semicolons because they never learned how."
    (Sam Roberts, "Seen on the Subway." Only in New York: An Exploration of the World's Most Fascinating, Frustrating, and Irrepressible City. St. Martin's, 2009)
  • The Ugly Mark
    "Let me be plain: the semi-colon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog's belly. I pinch them out of my prose."
    (Donald Barthelme)
  • The Scholarly Mark
    "Semicolons are pretentious and overactive. These days one seems to come across them in every other sentence. . . . [I]f the undergraduate essays I see are representative, we are in the midst of an epidemic of semicolons. I suspect that the semicolon is so popular because it is the first fancy punctuation mark students learn of, and they assume that its frequent appearance will lend their writing a properly scholarly cast. Alas, they are only too right."
    (Paul Robinson, "The Philosophy of Punctuation." Opera, Sex, and Other Vital Matters. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002)
  • The Pretentious Mark
    "First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."
    (Kurt Vonnegut, "Here Is a Lesson in Creative Writing." A Man Without a Country. Random House, 2007)
  • The Democratic Mark: In Defense of Semicolons
    - "[F]ar from being pretentious, semicolons can be positively democratic. To use a semicolon properly can be an act of faith. It’s a way of saying to the reader, who is already holding one bag of groceries, here, I know it’s a lot, but can you take another? And then (in the case of William James) another? And another? And one more? Which sounds, of course, dreadful, and like just the sort of discourtesy a writer ought strenuously to avoid. But the truth is that there can be something wonderful in being festooned in carefully balanced bags; there’s a kind of exquisite tension, a feeling of delicious responsibility, in being so loaded up that you seem to have half a grocery store suspended from your body.

    "So yes, Kurt Vonnegut: simplicity, in grammar as in all things, is a virtue, not to be sneezed at. But I can’t agree that semicolons represent absolutely nothing; they represent, for me anyway, the pleasure in discovering that no piece of writing advice, however stark, however beloved its deliverer, should ever be adopted mindlessly."
    (Ben Dolnick, "Semicolons: A Love Story." The New York Times, July 2, 2012)

    - "You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life."
    (George Bernard Shaw in a letter to T.E. Lawrence. Quoted by Michael Korda in Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. HarperCollins, 2010)

    - "Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath."
    (Lewis Thomas, "Notes on Punctuation")
  • The Lighter Side of Semicolons
    DI Samantha Nixon: No, no. Go on. What's wrong with it?
    DC Jacob Banks: Nothing as such, Guv, but it's quite a list to wade through. If you want it to read better, you could break it up with some semicolons. They're . . .
    DI Samantha Nixon: Yeah, little commas with dots on the top. Yeah, I know what they are, Banksy.
    DC Jacob Banks: Right, well I wasn't suggesting that you don't . . .
    DI Samantha Nixon: I'd like to see you try this with Jack Meadows!
    DC Jacob Banks: That would be Jack "No Spell Check" Meadows?
    DI Samantha Nixon: I knew it was a mistake bringing a teacher into the department.
    (The Bill, 2008)


Alternate Spellings: semi-colon