The Purpose of the Semicolon

To allow for a pause longer than that indicated by a comma but shorter than that indicated by a period

To connect two related ideas that could be separate sentences (i.e., independent clauses)

Left Hanging

A. According to the research of Denee and Lomas (2008), the members of this “Nuclear Family” included the; father, mother and the children. 

B. Interesting to note, the research of Caspe, Lopez, and Wolos (2007), also suggest that even the low-income African Americans who participated in the research study; had great results with parental involvement and or support, yielded positive results, academically. 

Oooo, left hanging by a semicolon! I know I am not the only one to state this, but I will reiterate it. One of the most commonly misunderstood and misused punctuation marks is the semicolon. Examples “A” and “B” above provide some of the worst offenses utilizing the mark. Both sentences are split; in example “A,” a verb is separated from its object and the subject is separated from the predicate in example “B.”

Neither sentence actually needs a semicolon as illustrated in examples “C” and “D.”

A. According to the research of Denee and Lomas (2008), the members of this “Nuclear Family” included the father, mother, and children. 

B. Interesting to note, the research of Caspe, Lopez, and Wolos (2007) also suggest that even the low-income African Americans who participated in the research study showed great results with parental involvement and or support, which also yielded positive academic results. 

I made some other critical edits to make them both readable. Obviously semicolons aren’t our only problem.

 Correct Semicolon Usage

Two Independent Clauses

One of the two primary uses of a semicolon is to connect two related independent clauses (a clause containing a noun and a verb) to avoid short simple sentences. The ideas on either side of the semicolon MUST be related. Correct usage in this manner is depicted in example “C.”

C. Study participants indicated that when spiritual matters arose with students, they did not turn students away; they addressed the question or concern using their best thinking.

We could separate the two clauses into separate sentences. However, “they addressed” would become ambiguous because both “study participants” and “students” had been referenced. The semicolon not only allows us to make our sentences more complex and our writing less choppy, it allows us to use pronouns more freely as they refer to a noun in the initial clause.

Incorrect usage of a semicolon with clauses

When one clause is independent and the other is dependent, or cannot stand on its own, a comma is the appropriate punctuation, not a semicolon. See example “D.”

D. This study analyzed insect and plant biodiversity on and adjacent to organic vegetable farms on the Central Coast of California at two spatial scales; the landscape-scale and a smaller within-farm scale.

“The landscape-scale and a smaller within-farm scale” are further explaining or describing the phrase “two spatial scales.” They are not comprising a complete sentence and cannot stand alone because of their purpose. The sentence should look like this:

D. This study analyzed insect and plant biodiversity on and adjacent to organic vegetable farms on the Central Coast of California at two spatial scales: the landscape-scale and a smaller within-farm scale.

When equal ideas are separated by a punctuation mark, they should be separated by a colon. A comma is used if the ideas are adding information to and qualifying the previously mentioned concept. This is covered in another post. Example “E” illustrates further use of a colon before equal terms.

E. The Central Coast provides habitat for 482 vertebrate species: 283 birds, 87 mammals, 42 reptiles, 25 amphibians, and 45 fish.  

Complex Sentence Construction

F. The engineer found the tape player he’d heard about. He turned it on. It did not work. He called a technician. The technician had not worked on reel-to-reel players before. The technician worked only with cassette and 8-track players.

Obviously, some editing could make example “F” more interesting and read more smoothly.

F. The engineer found the tape player he’d heard about, turned it on, and called a technician when it did not work. The technician had not worked on reel-to-reel players before; he had only worked with cassette and 8-track players.

It is now a paragraph with what I call “heft,” also called substance, to it. It no longer reads like a 10-year-old wrote it. To test if one should use a semicolon or not, try taking the two clauses of a sentence and making them into separate sentences. If they stand on their own, a semicolon can be used. Sometimes, however, a comma and conjunction (and, or, but) are more appropriate. But if you are not using a conjunction, a semicolon is the way to connect those clauses.

Lists

When people think of listing items, they typically think of using commas. But what if commas are used inside the list? As example “G” illustrates, commas within lists can allow a reader to experience comma confusion.

G. The researcher conducted interviews at American River College focusing on three primary individuals: Manuel Ruedas, Coordinator of the Puente Program, T.J. Watkins, adjunct instructor and coach, adjunct faculty, coordinator of the Learning Disability/DSPS, and DSPS counselor.

According to example “G,” the researcher interviewed seven, not four people. A reader would not necessarily know that and would probably be confused by the author’s numeracy. Upon further questioning, clarity could result, as shown here:

H. The researcher conducted interviews at American River College focusing on three primary individuals: Manuel Ruedas, Coordinator of the Puente Program; T.J. Watkins, adjunct instructor and coach, adjunct faculty, and coordinator of Learning Disability/DSPS; and the DSPS counselor.

Conjunctive Adverbs

Conjunctive adverbs are words such as however, moreover, furthermore, and therefore. Sometimes such words are used within a clause and are only set off with commas; however, as illustrated in this sentence, if they separate two independent clauses, a semicolon comes before the word and a comma follows it. Examples “I,” “J,” and “K” help illustrate the concept.

I. The majority of the ethnic groups in the United States are labeled or categorized for various reasons; however, most of these categories are used to assist various researchers and governmental officials with statistical data and population changes.

J. A majority of single-parent households are headed by women; therefore, only a small amount of research is focused on single fathers.  

K. The aid of programs such as AFDC are more likely to be given to single-parent mothers than fathers since it is assumed fathers have a higher average income and, thus, have a lower need for assistance. 

Other Sites to View on This Topic

A funny, quick explanation
University of Wisconsin
Grammarbook