Doyle Online Writing Lab


Read about the difference between colons and semicolons.

Semicolons serve two purposes:

1. to separate closely related independent clauses that are not connected to conjunctions:

  • She ought to have said something earlier; now it is too late.
  • I was infuriated at the very idea of her having left without me; nevertheless, I will forgive her come this evening. [Generally speaking, when hence, however, thus, and so on are used as transitions between the clauses of a compound sentence they are preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma.]

2. to replace commas when the items to be kept apart have internal commas:

  • I have been employed in Berkeley, California; Austin, Texas; and Somers, New York.
  • Although he didn't say anything about it, we knew he had failed the test; and the saddest thing about it was that he pretended not to care about his education, his prospects, or his need to prove that he could face up to a challenge.

Practice Sentences

Decide where the use of a semicolon clarifies each sentence's meaning. Where would it be better to use some other form of punctuation?

1. I wish I had known about the situation before. I may have been able to help.

2. She did not have to take such drastic measures. Quitting the team was a very bad idea.

3. It bothered me that George was so obsessed with the project. Still someone needs to take the helm in such crucial matters.

4. The pairings were Michael and Sandy Rick and James and Kristin and Lois.

5. I meant to buy sugar milk butter and oil at the store this afternoon.


For more information . . .

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985. 131-3.

Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. 56-7.