English / Test-taking / TOEFL / Vocabulary

Rules How to Use a Semicolon Accurately in the English Language

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When you read books, articles in a newspaper or passages online, are you able to recognize the difference between a colon and a semicolon in English? Perhaps, you sometimes struggle using the semicolon punctuation mark correctly in written English.

Often mistaken with colons, semicolons have their distinct functions. Thus, they must be written in sentences according to the grammar rules. Similar to other punctuation marks, a semicolon is unique in the manner in which it is used, so avoid interchanging this punctuation with others unless it has the same rule. Therefore, if you know the rules about when to use a specific punctuation, you will be in a better position to perform well in formal written English on an exam such as the TOEFL writing section or the AWA on the GMAT.

What does a semicolon look like? A comma with a period on top of it. This is no coincidence! A semicolon, like a comma, indicates a spoken pause, a bit longer than a comma’s pause but shorter than the pause of a period at the end of a sentence. When we read  or speak out loud, our voices pause for semicolons in a similar way–but slightly more–than we would pause for a comma. So, when you listen to spoken English, you can actually hear a pause for a semicolon.

In many cases, a semicolon links two thoughts or related ideas. In formal academic written English, each thought or idea is usually in its own sentence. However, the flow of the writing might not be smooth if all the sentences are short or simple. Yet, if you are able to master the art of using semicolons accurately, it can give a smoother flow to your writing and even improve your performance on the written portion of a standardized test.

The functions that semicolons perform are unique, so be sure you avoid the common mistake of using a semicolon to replace a colon. For instance, an example of incorrect usage is as follows: I have one objective; to get a high score. The correct punctuation would be to employ a colon ( : )  in this case. Correct >> I have one objective: to get a high score.

Avoid confusion by practicing to write with semicolons precisely because even though semicolons look a little like a period on top of a comma, they do not have the same uses. Here are some grammar rules of when you can use semicolons in your writing.

  1. Connect two related sentences (independent clauses)–like replacing a period. A semicolon divides the thoughts but also links those ideas.
  • Structure: Sentence #1 + ; + related Sentence #2.

          Examples:

  • Give me a ring on Saturday; we can decide then if we want to go out to the party.
  • Mom still rides her bike; her two back baskets balance her stability when riding.

2. Connect two sentences close in meaning using a transition (moreover, furthermore, namely, nevertheless, for example, however, otherwise, therefore, thus, then, finally, likewise, consequently) such as a conjunctive adverb. Use a comma after the transition.

  • Structure: #1 Sentence + ; + transition, + sentence #2 close in meaning.

          Examples:

  • My sister does not agree with my nephew riding around on a motorcycle; however, she used to ride a motorcycle when she was young.
  • My friend thinks that working 80 hours per week is normal; consequently, he has hardly any downtime to spend with his partner.
  • My grandma passed away at a ripe old age; nevertheless, she had filled herself with chocolates, desserts and liquor every day.

3. Use semicolons with a complicated list of items of a series(e.g. with commas within the series) to clarify and prevent confusion

  • Structure: #1 item+, + other + ; + #2 item +, + other + ; + and #3 item +, + other

          Example:

  • On her bike, my sister has traveled to Barcelona, Spain; Toronto, Canada; Vancouver, Canada; and San Francisco, California.

Remember to keep in mind:

  • Avoid using semicolons too much; you shouldn’t write them often in an essay. Focus on using them for that special circumstance, only when necessary.
  • The two main clauses that the semicolon connects must be related.
  • After the semicolon, do not capitalize the beginning letter of the word that follows (like you do following a period) unless that word happens to be a proper noun, such as I, which is always capitalized.

Since these rules are super easy to familiarize yourself with, you should have no trouble using them correctly in your next essay or on an exam such as on the TOEFL writing section or the AWA (GMAT.)

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