Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Another Bugbear - the semi-colon

I had no idea just how popular my post on commas would be last week! If you missed it and would like to have a look you can find it here.

In your comments here on my blog, on Twitter and on Facebook, several of you mentioned that the incorrect use of the semi-colon (or semicolon) was something that irritated you. For me, it's not so much the incorrect use of the semi-colon but the use of a comma when a semi-colon should be used.

If you're confused by these fiddly punctuation marks, you're in good company. Most people find them the trickiest to master. My year six class certainly did and, if they moved on to secondary school with an understanding of them, I'd give myself a little pat on the back.

"Just put one in your SATS writing task," I'd beg. "The marker of your paper will think you're a genius!"

So what is a semi-colon?

Basically, it's a type of pause - longer than a comma but not as long as a full stop.

There are two reasons why you would use a semi-colon.


This is the simplest use of the semi-colon. Usually, you'd use a comma to separate items in a list but what if the list is more complicated? More descriptive? This is when you'd use semi-colons.


(simple list) In my bag is a pen, comb, a receipt and a purse.

(more detailed list) In my bag is a red pen with a missing lid; a comb with no teeth; a receipt for a coffee and a beaded purse with no money in it.

Easy peasy!


This is a little harder to explain but bear with me. Many writers make the mistake of using a comma to join two complete sentences. DON'T! This is the dreaded comma splice and, if I see you use it, I will shout SPLICE at you very loudly (something I made my year six children do if they identified one in a list of sentences I'd written on the board).

Look at these two sentences.

The boy pushed open the window.
He climbed in.

We could write them as two separate sentences using full stops.

The boy pushed open the window. He climbed in.

There's nothing wrong with this but, if you look closely, you'll notice that the two sentences are closely linked. The first is about the window being opened and the second is about the boy climbing through it. Because of this, it would be more powerful to link the sentences together with a semi-colon.

The boy pushed open the window; he climbed in. (note: no capital letter is used after the semi-colon.)

So, to recap. They must be two complete sentences and they must be linked by theme or topic to each other if a semi-colon is to be used.

What you MUSTN'T do (sorry to shout again) is use a comma! A comma can only join a sentence with a part of a sentence. If you try to join two complete sentences with a comma, it is a comma splice... arggg! Stand outside my door!

To finish, which one of these sentences is correct?

a) Bonnie is a bad dog; she likes to chase other dogs.

b) My cat is very old, he sleeps most of the day.

c) My husband is good at fixing things; if they're broken.

d) I can hear  traffic outside my window; I'm going to the cinema.

P.S If you say b I might never speak to you again!

The semi-colon is, sadly I feel, going out of fashion. do you ever use it?


  1. I love the semi-colon; sadly, I think I'm in the minority.

    1. What a perfect example, Julie. thank you for that.

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  3. This is brilliant! I love you, Wendy, Grammar Queen :)

    1. Ha ha. Not the spelling queen though, Tracy. See below!

  4. "capitol" letter? Quick, edit that typo!

  5. I use them. It must be a teacher thing.

  6. I've been told off for using too many semi-colons!

  7. I REALLY struggle with this one. I've been using it but probably wrong. Thanks for the explanation, Wendy.

  8. Love this post as I'm in favour of occasional semi-colons and detest the comma splice.

  9. I like semi-colons, and think I am probably guilty of the comma splice, so will look out for it now. Thanks. ;)