30 October 2018


This very brief post (requested by students) aims to exemplify conventions for the use of semicolons in standard written English, in just three simple stages.

1. How can a semicolon be used?

A semicolon has just two key functions:
  • to separate items in a list (such as this one);
  • to separate clauses in a sentence which are very closely related.

2. Examples of semicolons separating lists of items or phrases.

In the following examples semicolons help to make sense of lists of items. The first two examples show the use of a colon to introduce lists. The second two examples do not use a colon, serving to demonstrate how semicolons can improve the clarity of a sentence.

You will need the following: some scrap paper; a pen, preferably blue or black; some envelopes; and some good, white, unlined writing paper.

Dandelion seeds may reach the lawn in various ways: blown by the wind; carried by birds; brought in on muddy footwear, machinery, or tools; or concealed in unsterilised soil or badly made compost.

I bought two wholemeal loaves; 200g of coarsely grated cheese; a tin of tuna in olive oil and a large bulb of organic garlic.

In the meeting today we have Professor Wilson, University of Barnsley; Dr Watson, University of Barrow in Furness; Colonel Custard, Metropolitan Police and Dr Mable Syrup, University of Otago, New Zealand.

3. Examples of semicolons separating clauses.

The following examples show semicolons being used to separate independent clauses.  Each clause might stand as a separate sentence. The semicolon is a better choice than a full stop in these examples; it clarifies the close relationship between the two clauses.

I liked that film; its portrayal of events was accurate.

Neither of us spoke; we merely waited in silence to see what would happen.

The essential oil found in jasmine is too delicate to be produced by distillation; the heat tends to destroy the odour.

Now try the following exercises, to test your understanding:

Reference list

Randall, E. & Hardman, A. (2002) A-Z of Key Concepts in Primary English. Exeter: Learning Matters.

Seely, J. (2009) A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation. 2nd edn. Oxford University Press.

Temple, M. (1997) Grammar Book. London: John Murray Ltd.

University of Bristol (no date) The Semicolon. Available at: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/exercises/grammar/grammar_tutorial/page_05.htm (Accessed: 30 Oct 2018).

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Regards, DJA