Many students shy away from using semicolons because they don't know how to use them correctly. If you know this feeling, then you deserve an “A” for restraint. But understanding how to use semicolons is simpler than you think. Just remember the basic governing rule: Semicolons are most often used to link independent clauses that are closely related in thought or idea. An independent clause is a complete thought that could stand alone as a sentence.

Usage in a Sentence

A semicolon is meant to signal a reader that there is a close relationship between two independent clauses. For example, look at the following sentence: “On Monday, I have only one test; on Tuesday, I have to take three tests.” You wouldn't be wrong to use a period in place of the semicolon, but you are more correct to use a semicolon because those two ideas – about tests on Monday and Tuesday – are closely related. Semicolons also are used to join independent clauses that are connected by words such as “however,” “in fact,” “therefore,” “moreover” and “nevertheless.” Use these conjunctive adverbs with a semicolon like this: “That movie was the greatest; in fact, it was the best movie I've seen all summer.”

Usage With Complex Lists

You can effectively use semicolons to reduce “visual clutter” in sentences with complex lists. We normally use commas to separate the items in a list, but if the individual items themselves contain commas, a semicolon separates the items more clearly. See how semicolons cleanly separate information in this sentence: “He certainly loves to travel by car, having been to Sandwich, Illinois; Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Ames, Iowa; and Lincoln, Nebraska, all in one day.”