Skip to content

In Defense of Semicolons

The semicolon leads a hard life: ignored by most, scorned by others, misunderstood by many. Who can blame it if it creates trouble for some of us?

I’m here to defend the semicolon as a useful member of the family of punctuation marks. I’m also here to answer the questions:

  • What is a semicolon?
  • Where should a semicolon be used in a sentence?

A semicolon is a punctuation mark that looks like this:


It has two very important uses in business writing:

  1. To connect two closely related sentences that are not connected by a conjunction (conjunctions = and, but, or, nor, yet, so).
  2. To separate items in a series (series = two or more) when the items already contain commas

Examples of two closely related sentences connected with a semicolon:

Jessie left early; however, Galen stayed until 5 p.m.
These pearls look genuine; nevertheless, they are costume jewelry.
Deliver these boxes to the main office; then take your lunch.

Yes, all the semicolons in the examples above could be changed to periods, making each example two short sentences. However, if you want to connect the two short sentences so that your reader sees them as one unit, use a semicolon, as I did. No other punctuation mark can do that job for you.

Examples of items in series that already contain commas:

The subscribers came from Raleigh, North Carolina; Tucson, Arizona; Fort Meade, Maryland; and East Syracuse, New York.

The panel was composed of Dr. David Wells, Cardiology; Dr. Phyllis Watts, Endocrinology; and Dr. Ricardo Sanchez, Gerontology.

Compare these examples that do not need semicolons:

The subscribers came from Raleigh, Tucson, Fort Meade,  and East Syracuse.

The panel was composed of Dr. David Wells, Dr. Phyllis Watts, and Dr. Ricardo Sanchez.

Although the sentences directly above do not need semicolons, the ones with the city/states and person/affiliations do need them. No other punctuation marks can do that job.

Have you realized that the semicolon is your friend in business writing? Just spend some time with it. In fact, why not use a semicolon (or two or three) in a sentence today?

I know I’ll use one; in fact, I just did!


Alternate search spellings: puntuation, punctuaton, punctuaiton, punctutaion, puncatution, smeicolon, seicolon

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

3 comments on “In Defense of Semicolons”

  • Hi Lynn,

    Let’s hear it for the oft misused semi-colon! I’m sending a link to your blog to couple of colleagues who really want to use semi-colons well; however, they don’t understand their purpose.

    I’d like to pause for a moment in appreciation of my high school English teacher, Ms. Trice (Hillcrest High School, Dallas, Texas) who drilled us in the proper use of semi-colons. Wherever you are, Liz, I send my thanks.

  • I particularly love your opening lines, as they endearingly personify the semicolon: “The semicolon leads a hard life: ignored by most, scorned by others, misunderstood by many. Who can blame it if it creates trouble for some of us?” Beautifully put!

  • Craig, thank you for the compliment! Here’s a challenge: Why don’t you write an ode to the ellipsis?

Comments are closed.