Handout Topic: Semicolons

What are semicolons?
Semicolons are useful pieces of punctuation. Often confused with a comma, semicolons can help writers avoid the dreaded comma splice.

When do I use a semicolon?
Semicolons should be used:

1.      to join two closely related independent clauses (an independent clause is characterized by its ability to stand alone as its own sentence). 

            OR:

2.      to provide further punctuation in a list if commas are already being used.


e.g. Jenn wrote the handout about MLA style; it should be helpful for arts students. (two closely related independent clauses)

e.g. Nancy has lived in three different Canadian cities: London, Ontario; Victoria, British Columbia; and Halifax, Nova Scotia. (commas already being used. Semicolons make clear the separation between the items in the list)

For cases where the semicolon is being used to separate two independent clauses (as in example #1 above), other types of punctuation are also acceptable:

e.g. Jenn wrote the handout about MLA style, and it should be helpful for arts students. (a comma + a coordinating conjunction is often acceptable)

e.g. Jenn wrote the handout about MLA style. It should be helpful for arts students. (creating two new sentences is also acceptable)

So, why bother to use a semicolon when these two alternate methods are equally acceptable? The reason is mostly based on style. For example, consistently creating short, choppy sentences by breaking up connecting ideas can make for repetitive writing. Using a semicolon is also the only way of properly forming a close connection (i.e. included in the same sentence) between two grammatically independent, yet strongly connected ideas.     

ExercisesChange the following sentences so that they make use of a semicolon.

1. Several of my friends are graduating this year. They all attend different universities, however.

2. One of my favourite flavours of ice cream is chocolate, but on the other hand, I don’t like chocolate cake.

3. Personally, my goal is to make the next Canadian Olympic team, and I need to start training immediately.

4. There were three different teams at the relay race: the first group had Patrick, Lisa, and Ruth, the second group had Hal, Sarah, and Vicky, and the third group had Peter, Olga, and Edgar.