A photograph of a semi-colon carved into stone

Source: semi, mag3737, Flickr

The semicolon is one of the least-appreciated, least-used punctuation marks. Not a fan of the semicolon, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the only reason to use this punctuation mark was “to show that you’ve been to college.” You should approach this section on semicolons with an open mind. At the very least, you’ll develop an appreciation for semicolons; at the very best, you’ll prove you can handle college-level punctuation. Three of the most common uses of the semicolon follow.

  1. Semicolons join two closely related independent clauses that have no coordinating conjunction. Using the semicolon helps establish a closer connection than a period does.
    Semicolons are medium stops; they signal that you should expect more.
  2. To prevent confusion, semicolons can be used to link lists where commas are also used.
    “A period has the unblinking finality of a red light; the comma is a flashing yellow light that asks us only to slow down; and the semicolon is a stop sign that tells us to ease gradually to a halt, before gradually starting up again.” —Grammar.About.com
  3. Semicolons precede conjunctive adverbs when the adverb joins two independent clauses. These transitional adverbs include however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, therefore, and sometimes then. Chicago Manual of Style
    Some students find semicolons too challenging; therefore, they stick to the punctuation marks they’ve always used.

Now it’s time to dip your toe into the semicolon pool with the following activity. Select “yes” if the semicolon has been used appropriately. Choose “no” if the semicolon has been used incorrectly.

icon for interactive exercise

When you proofread your own writing, look for two related short sentences that could be joined by a semicolon. You’ll add variety to your writing while demonstrating that you can handle the semicolon—so there, Kurt Vonnegut!