When to Use Semicolons: Simple Explanation with 5 Examples

Picture of the storefront of a bookstore called "Semicolon"
Photo by Kat Combs / Unsplash

Semicolons are tricky pieces of punctuation, so they’re often misused. This is a shame because once you understand them a bit, they’re not so intimidating. In this piece, we’re going to look at what they are and how you can use them well.

Table of Contents

  1. What is the semicolon?
  2. How is the semicolon used?
  3. 5 examples of how to use the semicolon
  4. Conclusion

What is the semicolon?

The semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark. A formal definition is that it is used between two independent clauses. This will make more sense in the next section.

How is the semicolon used?

A semicolon is equal in power to the period. Anywhere you see a period, you can replace it with a semicolon (and vice-versa) and your writing will still be grammatically correct.

There isn’t a grammar rule that governs when to use a semicolon. Rather, it’s a matter of style.

You should use a semicolon when the ideas in two sentences (but really two independent clauses) are so connected that they should be in the same sentence.

Let’s look at some examples.

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5 examples of how to use the semicolon

Here are some simple examples:

  1. David is quiet; his twin brother is talkative.
  2. I love steak; my partner prefers salmon.
  3. Tuesday is a busy day at the park; it’s not a good time to go there.

In all of these examples, a semicolon is appropriate because the two ideas are closely related and should be in the same sentence. The way I think of it is that different punctuation marks make me pause for different amounts of time while I’m reading. A period is a long pause. A comma and semicolon are shorter pauses. When two ideas are closely connected, a shorter pause is more natural, so a semicolon works better.

Let’s now look at an example from published writing. I’m currently reading the book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. The author, Oliver Burkeman, writes:

On one occasion, I tried scheduling the whole of every day in fifteen-minute blocks; on another, I used a kitchen timer to work exclusively in periods of twenty-five minutes, interspersed with five-minute breaks.

He’s giving two examples of time management techniques he tried. The ideas are similar; he wants you to move quickly from one to the next, so he uses a semicolon instead of a period. (Notice my use of a semicolon as well 😉)

One more example from Burkeman:

I don’t think the feeling of anxiety ever completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations.

Again, he uses the semicolon because wants to keep the ideas in each sentence closer together. If he used a period instead, there would be more of a break between them.


The good news is that you never need a semicolon. Remember, you can always just use a period!

In English, semicolons are rare, so I wouldn’t recommend investing a bunch of time trying to master them. As you’re reading and you come across one, just take a moment to understand why it works in the sentence. You’ll soon be able to see the patterns and start using them in your own writing.

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Happy writing!