How to Use a Semicolon in Spanish

Montevideo storm
Hacía mucho viento; las olas eran inmensas. (It was very windy; the waves were huge.). Photo by Vince Alongi; licensed via Creative Commons.

The semicolon, or "el punto y coma" in Spanish, is used and misused in Spanish much as it is in English. However, the rules for its application in Spanish can be more subjective than for the other punctuation symbols ( "signos de puntuación") and lead to a larger range of common mistakes.

Still, there are two main utilities of the semicolon when writing in Spanish: joining independent clauses or detailing a list of items with multiple names in each section of the list — in both of these cases, the semicolon acts as it does in English use, separating thoughts into a neat, organized form.

As a special note, the plural of "el punto y coma" is "los puntos y coma" or "los signos de punto y coma," which follows the English tradition of pluralizing only the first word in a noun phrase.

Using Semicolons Instead of Periods

As its Spanish name suggests "punto y coma" means "period and comma," which emphasizes its primary use as being to represent a break between independent clauses (a part of a sentence that could stand alone because it has a subject and verb) that is stronger than what a comma would stand for but weaker than what a period would stand for; the two clauses should be connected as part of a thought or relate to each other. 

Note in the following example that separating the clauses with periods would not be wrong, but the use of a semicolon would suggest a stronger relationship between the two clauses than making them into separate sentences would: "Cuando estoy en casa, me llamo Roberto; cuando trabajo, me llamo Sr. Smith" or "When I'm at home, I'm Robert; when I'm working, I'm Mr. Smith." 

If the clauses are especially short, a comma is preferred in Spanish, such is the case with the sentence "Te quiero, eres perfecto" or "I love you, you're perfect" wherein it is grammatically correct to separate these two short ideas into one cohesive sentence.

Using Semicolons in Lists

Another use for the semicolon is in lists when at least one of the items in the list has a comma, as in English. In this way, the semicolon functions as kind of a "supercomma" such as in the sentence "Encabezan la lista de los países americanos con más decesos Brasil y Colombia con seis cada uno; México con tres; y Cuba, El Salvador y Estados Unidos con dos."

In this list, which translates in English to "Leading the list of American countries with the most deceased are Brazil and Colombia with six apiece; Mexico with three; and Cuba, El Salvador and the United States with two,"the semicolons act as separators in the list of countries with deceased populations to provide clarity to the sentence structure.

Semicolons can also be used in vertical lists at the end of each item other than the final one, such is the case with the following:

"Tenemos tres metas:
— aprender mucho;
— amarnos;
— vivir con autentididad."

or "We have three goals:
— To learn a lot.
— To love each other.
— To live authentically."