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Feel confused about how to use semicolons? Don’t feel bad because you’re definitely not the only one. A lot of people shy away from using semicolons to the point where they make their sentences weaker than they need to be or even end up writing ungrammatically. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll go over two key ways to use semicolons in your writing.

Semicolon use # 1: Use a semicolon to join two related sentences

We often join related independent clauses (words that can stand alone as full sentences) using a comma and a coordinating conjunction (e.g., “and,” “so,” or “but”):

  • “John went to the coffee shop, but he forgot to go to the grocery store.

However, this isn’t the only option that we have. Another way to write these clauses is to leave out the conjunction and replace the comma with a period. After all, independent clauses can stand on their own as separate sentences:

  • “John went to the coffee shop. He forgot to go to the grocery store.”

We also have a third option: using a semicolon. Specifically, we can leave out the conjunction and replace the comma with a semicolon:

  • “John went to the coffee shop; he forgot to go to the grocery store.

Now, you may be wondering why we need to even think about using semicolons like this if we already have two ways to write these clauses. After all, don’t all three versions of the sentence express the same thing? Well, yes and no. It’s true that the sentences contain the same general information: they all tell us that John went to one place but forgot to go to another place. However, the sentences differ in terms of how much they emphasize the relationship (or the distinction) between the clauses. For example, let’s take a look at all three versions of the sentence together:

  • “John went to the coffee shop. He forgot to go to the grocery store.
  • “John went to the coffee shop, but he forgot to go to the grocery store.
  • “John went to the coffee shop; he forgot to go to the grocery store.

In the first example (with the period), each of the two key pieces of information (where John did and didn’t go) are contained in separate sentences. This way of writing the sentences may be the best one to use if the fact that John went to the coffee shop has nothing to do with the fact that he forgot to go to the grocery store.

In the second example, the two pieces of information are contained in a single sentence and joined together by a comma, which creates a brief pause between them. This way of writing the sentences may be the best one to use if you want to acknowledge that there’s a connection or distinction between the two facts (i.e., that John went to the coffee shop and that he forgot to go to the grocery store), but you don’t want to draw much attention to it. For example, perhaps you’re John’s friend and you don’t want to lie about what he did vs. didn’t do, but you also don’t want to get him into trouble by placing too much emphasis on what he forgot to do.

In the third example, the two pieces of information are joined together in a single sentence by a semicolon, which creates a longer pause between them. This longer pause emphasizes the connection or distinction between the two pieces of information. For this reason, using a semicolon in this sentence may be best if you’re trying to emphasize a connection or distinction between the fact that John went to the coffee shop and the fact that he forgot to go to the grocery store. For example, perhaps you’re John’s wife and you want to point out that John had all of the time in the world to go get coffee but not enough time to do the chores that you asked him to do at the grocery store.

As you can see, although all three versions of the sentence convey the same general information, they vary in terms of their tone and what they imply to the reader. When you want to emphasize a connection or distinction between two pieces of information that could otherwise stand on their own, use a semicolon.

Have any lingering questions about how to use semicolons to join related sentences? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll do our best to incorporate your questions into one of our upcoming posts.

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How to use a semicolon to join related sentences
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