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Grammar and Mechanics: Semicolons

Semicolon Basics

Semicolons are punctuation marks used to separate parts of sentences.

Note the bolding and highlighting used for emphasis in the examples on this page.

Use a semicolon in the following instances:

 

  1. To join two independent clauses to connect two closely related ideas. Use a semicolon when separating two independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction. When a semicolon is used between the two independent clauses, the two ideas (the two independent clauses) are given equal position or rank. This is a stylistic choice made by the writer; a period would also be correct.
     
    CORRECT:
    The theory of planned behavior illustrates that behavior can be deliberate and planned; the theory helps explain an individual’s ability to exert self-control over his or her behavior.
     
    CORRECT (alternative version using a period):
    The theory of planned behavior illustrates that behavior can be deliberate and planned. The theory helps explain an individual’s ability to exert self-control over his or her behavior.
     
    INCORRECT (The second clause here is dependent and cannot stand alone; the second clause is a sentence fragment.):
    The theory of planned behavior illustrates that behavior can be deliberate and planned; while theory helps explain an individual’s ability to exert self-control over his or her behavior.
     
    INCORRECT (There is a coordinating conjunction between the two independent clauses, so a comma is needed here instead.):
    The theory of planned behavior illustrates that behavior can be deliberate and planned; and the theory helps explain an individual’s ability to exert self-control over his or her behavior.
     
  2. To join two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb or a transitional phrase (such as however, therefore, consequently, nevertheless, furthermore, moreover, as a result) to connect two closely related ideas. Note that there is a semicolon before the conjunctive adverb/transitional phrase and a comma after it.
     
    CORRECT:
    This structure joins two independent clauses; moreover, it creates cohesion in the text by showing how one idea relates to another.
     
    CORRECT:
    I had difficulty obtaining a large number of participants; however, I still reached saturation in the interviews.
     
    INCORRECT (this is a run-on sentence):
    I had difficulty obtaining a large number of participants, however, I still reached saturation in the interviews.
     
  3. In a series. Use semicolons to separate elements in a series that already contains commas to avoid confusion between the serialized items.
     
    CORRECT:
    In this section, I present the operational definitions; the assumptions, limitations, and delimitations; and the significance of the study.
     
    CORRECT:
    Numerous researchers have noted that daily English and academic English are two distinct skill sets (Braxley, 2005; DiCerbo et al., 2014; Hyland, 2016; Langum & Sullivan, 2017; Lucas et al., 2008; Mallia, 2017; Scarcella, 2003).

For more information about semicolons, see the following links:

Also watch the Mastering the Mechanics 2 and 3 webinars. Semicolon usage is frequently discussed in these two webinars.

In addition, refer to APA 7, Section 6.4 for more information about semicolon usage.