What’s a semicolon and when can you use one?

The semicolon is a seriously abused and underused bit of punctuation.  And often abandoned (wrongly) in favour of the colon or the comma. 

But once you know how to use it you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Seriously. It’s that handy.

Ok, so here’s a brief overview to get you on your way. The semicolon has two main uses.

1. It can join two complete sentences that are closely related:

My mother loved the flowers; the florist delivered them today.
I like going to London; the dollar is so strong against the pound.
I love the colour blue on me; white makes me look fat. 

2. It can separate a long list of items. Especially useful if some of the items in the list contain ‘and’ or the list is complex:

We have visited many islands in the Caribbean: Barbados; Turks and Caicos; Bahamas; and Trinidad and Tobago.
A few people are attending the meeting: Elaine Johnson, marketing co-ordinator; Sam Monroe, head of retail in Brussells; Don Smith; and Mary Jackson, project manager, London office.

Should you use a semicolon before the last ‘and’? Yes. Should you use a capital letter after the semicolon. Nope. Unless it’s a proper noun of course.

A client once told me that my use of a semicolon was, and I quote, ‘preposterous’. But when questioned (ok, cross examined and then beaten soundly) he was unable to explain when a semicolon should be used. Don’t be that client.


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