My three favorite places in the world are Amsterdam, New York, London, and Paris.
If you were counting as you read that sentence, you probably noticed that I mentioned four cities even though I introduced my list with the phrase “My three favorite places.” So, either I should change “three” to “four,” or I should correct my punctuation; I should have used a semicolon.
The semicolon is located to the right of the letter “L” on your keyboard and is made up of a period above a comma. Generally, the comma alone tells the reader to pause, and the period alone tells the reader to stop. The semicolon is the perfect combination of the two because the semicolon is more than a pause but less than a stop. Let’s call the semicolon a temporary halt. Typically, semicolons are used in two situations: to break up a series of items that includes commas and to indicate a close relationship between two complete thoughts.
To break up a series of items that includes commas. In the sentence above about my three favorite places, I should have used a semicolon after “New York” because I was referring to the Amsterdam in upstate New York, my hometown, rather than the Amsterdam in Holland. Using a semicolon in that spot eliminates the confusion and makes it easier for readers to understand. “My three favorite places are Amsterdam, New York; London, and Paris.”
Notice where the commas and the semicolons appear in the following example to tell readers where to pause and where to halt temporarily. “My favorite baseball teams are the 1961 Yankees with Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris; the 1969 Mets with Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones, and Tommie Agee; and the 1986 Mets with Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Gary Carter.”
To indicate a close relationship between two complete thoughts. Generally, when you have a close relationship with someone, you want a special symbol to demonstrate that special relationship to the world. The engagement ring that I gave to my wife, Barbara, for example, lets the world know that she and I have a special connection to each other. The semicolon serves the same purpose between two ideas. For example, to separate the following two thoughts, you could use either a period or a semicolon, but the difference in punctuation would also present a subtle difference in meaning.
“I met Maria recently. I’m in love.” The period indicates a separation between the two thoughts and may mean the speaker is in love with someone other than Maria.
“I met Maria recently; I’m in love.” The semicolon, however, lets the reader know for sure that the two thoughts are closely related and that the speaker is definitely in love with Maria.
If you wanted to make that connection even more obvious, you could also add a conjunctive adverb or a transitional phrase after the semicolon. Here are two examples, the first with a conjunctive adverb and the second with a transitional phrase.
“I met Maria recently; consequently, I’m in love.”
“I met Maria recently; as a result, I’m in love.”
The chart below shows some other conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases that you can use after semicolons to indicate certain relationships.
If you’re like most student writers, you’ve probably never used semicolons before because you weren’t sure how or where to use them. Now, however, you have no excuse. You know how to use semicolons; you should use them in your writing.