The use of the semicolon is often less clear than that of other punctuation marks; it is abhorred by some, and loved by others. However, it can be a useful device that adds clarity to text, though it can sometimes be replaced with other punctuation marks.

Direct rules for the use of the semicolon are obscure, but here are some guidelines:

  1. Semicolons can be used to link related independent clauses where no co-ordinating conjunction (and, but, yet, or, etc.) is used:
    • Exercise helps develop general fitness; a good diet also helps.
    • Six competitors started the race; only one made it to the finish line.
    • She loves Paris, Vienna and London; her home, though, is in Sydney.
  2. They can be used to link independent clauses where a transitional word (however, therefore, thus, etc.) is used:
    • Not all competitors finished the race; however, it was still an exciting event.
    • I am going to the pub; moreover, I intend to stay there all afternoon.
  3. Semicolons can be used in lists where some elements of the list already use a comma:
    • These are the things Jennifer loves the most: going to the movies, parties and dances; dining at good restaurants; taking trips to the beach, the country, or the mountains; her pet dog; and listening to her iPod.
    • The sports event will be cancelled if: it rains, hails, or snows; if more than 50 per cent of he contestants fail to appear; or if the judges decide the grounds are too wet, slippery or uneven.
    • Major Australian cricket grounds can be found in: Brisbane, Queensland; Sydney, New South Wales; and Melbourne, Victoria.

    Note: in the following examples, using a comma (known as the comma splice) is as ungrammatical as leaving it out. This is because the reader moves to the second part before realising the first has finished. This causes confusion; it should be avoided.

    • George is a fine player, he knows how to run the ball. [Wrong]
    • Mary is His mother, Joseph His father. [Wrong]
    • Bad punctuation causes confusion it must be avoided. [Wrong]
    These can be corrected by using a semicolon, dash or full stop:
    • George is a fine player – he knows how to run the ball. [An en- or em-dash]
    • Mary is His mother; Joseph His father.
    • Bad punctuation causes confusion. It must be avoided.

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