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The Semicolon

Semicolons can be used in two ways:

1. To join together two related statements of equal weight and importance into one sentence.

Example: It is important to proofread your work before turning it in; typos and other mistakes can make you seem careless.

  • The purpose of the semicolon in this case is to prevent the choppiness of separating two ideas that
    are closely related and to ask the reader to make a connection between the two statements. The
    semicolon also shows a progression from the first statement to the second.
  • It is crucial that statements which are separated by a semicolon be independent clauses. A good way to make sure that your use of the semicolon is correct is to separate the statements on either side of the semicolon and put a period between the two instead. Once you are certain that each statement can function alone as a sentence, you can join them.

2. To separate items in a list which contain internal punctuation.

Example: The Millennium Events Committee has planned several exciting events for spring semester, including lectures by Nikki Giovanni, an African-American poet and human rights activist; Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan; and Sir John Polkinghorne, who will address the topic of science and religion.

  • Internal punctuation separates the guests’ names from their descriptions. Therefore, the author has used semicolons. 
  • If none of the items in the list includes internal punctuation, then a comma should be used.

Here are some sentences in which a semicolon is used effectively:

The physical differences between Jude and the university students are symbolic of more than just their differing social positions; they are emblems of Jude’s ignorance and the impossibility of his dreams.

This place of safety and sanity is not on a calm and smooth plane of molten glass; reaching it involves a leap of faith and tough confrontation with the reality of pain and death.

In Heart of Darkness, the real danger of going into the wilderness is not that of confronting savages or dying of disease; the thing most to be dreaded is the internal change, the possible descent into madness.

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