🏁 Semi-colons are much trickier than ordinary colons, and if you don’t fully understand how to use them by the end of this section it might be easier just to avoid them!
We can use semi-colons in lists where we need to pause and give the audience or reader a bit more information about each item in the list, but we DO NOT use it to introduce the list itself (which is what a colon can be used for), e.g.
I like all types of ice cream: chocolate, because it’s very tasty; raspberry, because it has a sharp flavour; and vanilla, because it’s smoother than the other two.
We can also use it to link two related things you want to say, e.g.
I didn’t go out today; it was too cold.
📲 💻You can use this link to a Google Form so you can test yourself.
🔆 Think you get it, or want to pass on this one? Then go to Skill 39.
🛠 Need more? Then read on. Here are some more examples:
You need to improve three things about your work: get here on time, so we think of you as more reliable; do your fair share, so we don’t think of you as lazy; and be more polite to customers, so they don’t think of you as rude.
There are three reasons football teams often struggle at the bottom of the league: they rarely defend well, so they let goals in; they lose the plot in midfield, so no one knows what to do next; and they don’t have enough money, so they can’t buy better players.
As you can see, we don’t use it to introduce a list, but to give us space to make more comments so we can explain better what we mean, and to make sure any commas already used are less confusing.
We can also use it to take a pause in the middle of saying two things and add more information to something we have said in the first part that we want the reader or audience to think a bit more about in the second, e.g.
I don’t know if I want to continue this relationship; it’s just not going anywhere.
The main thing in life is to play your cards right; we all get dealt a different set, and it’s how we play them that counts in the end.
She often thinks about winning the lottery; it would make her life so much easier.
This use is as if you’ve paused after the first part of what you wanted to say, had a little think about what you wanted to say next, and then finished things off with what you really wanted to get across. The two parts are always closely related, and can stand as separate sentences. This is quite a subtle thing to get right though, and it’s often easier to just use it for the first use above, to add more information to items in a list for the reader to think about more.
🚦 Time for more?
🎯 💻 Here are some exercises which test whether you understand the difference in how we use semi-colons, and how they differ from colons, full stops (called periods on some US sites) and commas. There are quite a few of them as it’s a harder skill to get right every time.
Here is another explanation you could read:
This is really advanced punctuation so don’t worry if it takes a while to get it all. Sticking with just the colon is much easier, but you are to be commended for getting this far! You may have improved your accuracy in 38 ways by now, and if you’ve fully understood the semi-colon, congratulations, because most people don’t!
🎓 The two parts of the sentence that the semi-colon can be used to join are called (related) independent clauses because the second part can also stand alone as a short sentence by itself. If it couldn’t, you probably should have used a colon!