What is the correct way to use a semicolon?

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Answered by: Marco, An Expert in the Mechanics: Importance of Timing Category
The principle job of a semicolon is to mark the separation of two or more independent clauses. Unlike a period, however, a semicolon only designates a partial separation. If you want to connect two complete statements, but don't want to use a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so) to combine them, you should use a semicolon.

For instance, "Ellen has a ton of dead frogs in her house; I wonder where they came from." Here the semicolon brings the first clause, "Ellen has a lot of dead frogs in her house," together with the second, "I wonder where they came from," so that they make one sentence. Because they each have a subject and a verb, both of these constitute full clauses. The clauses that make up the sentence would work just fine by themselves, but they share a common theme. In this case, the writer chose to use a semicolon instead of a period or conjunction to magnify the connection while balancing the weight on either end.

Wording can often help us to determine correct semicolon use, especially in those cases where the second clause contains certain verbal cues. When the second sentence begins, for example, in either a conjunctive adverb (however, nevertheless, similarly, instead, indeed, etc.) or transitional expression (as a result, as a matter of fact, in addition, etc), we can tell that the it breaks off of the line of reasoning contained in the first. "Samantha wanted to go to the library to study for her trigonometry test; however, she forgot to check the library's hours, and she found it closed when she got there." In the example, "however," marks a break between two related sentences.

When we have two clauses that we want to combine with a coordinating conjunction, but at least one of them has a lot of commas, semicolons can be especially useful. The solution in this case is to use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction, as you would to make a compound sentence. "If you're looking for the best gizzard soup in the area, hightail over to Maybelle's; but if gizzard's not what you're looking for, well, come on down and try the great food at Arby's." Both clauses in the sentence are about food. The function of the semicolon in this sentence is to bring together these two, intricate, related statements into a compound sentence the way a comma would, but without reducing the relationship between the ideas. Correct semicolon use signals the break between these two clauses without splitting them into separate sentences.

Another closely related function of the semicolon is to divide the items in a series when they have a common subject and are further broken down by punctuation. For example: "Randolph loaded the truck with the last sheaf of metal plates; pulled down the truck's back door; walked to the drivers seat of the vehicle; and turning the ignition, waved at the people looking down from their windows, and he drove off to the next stop on his route." The items in this list share a common subject, Randolph, but each one is too littered with commas in itself to be clearly distinguished from the other actions by a simple comma. The semicolons take the commas' places by separating the actions on the list.

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