The basic function of the semicolon (;) is simple. A semicolon is used where you could use a capital letter and a period, but you’d rather not have such a strong break between your clauses. It’s good for spots where you want to bring clauses together, but you don’t want to use a conjunction.

In other words, a semicolon is used between independent clauses that are not linked by a conjunction. A semicolon is used when the information in the independent clauses is related or balanced. Here are five good examples for you to study:

1. Children between the ages of one and three need about 25 grams of protein a day; adults need 55 to 75 grams a day.

2. The red parts of poinsettias are not flowers; the red parts are actually leaves.

3. A female has two X chromosomes; a male has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome.

4. The first president who didn’t go to college was George Washington; the last was Harry Truman.

5. It is against federal law to impersonate a 4-H Club member; it is also a federal offense to misuse the 4-H symbol in a fraudulent manner.

Label the kernels of the clauses in examples (1) through (5) if that helps you see that each sentence is made up of two independent clauses. Note that the first word after the semicolon is not capitalized unless it is a proper noun.

Exercise 3.9

Insert one semicolon into each sentence. Label the key parts of the clauses if you need to. (In this exercise and in other exercises in this unit, any punctuation that is not related to the use of the semicolon is already supplied. See sentence 4, for example.)

1. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson was voted the woman athlete of the year in 1932 for her accomplishments in track she received the honor for her achievements in golf in 1954.

2. The Eiffel Tower was not intended as a permanent structure it was built as a temporary attraction for the Paris Exposition in 1889.

3. The skeletons of sharks are not composed of bone they are made up entirely of cartilage.

4. According to one national survey by American Demographics, high school boys expected a starting salary of $18,500 for their first full-time job high school girls expected a starting salary of only $14,700.

5. In the 1870s the most admired American sports heroes were riflemen oarsmen were almost as popular with the U.S. public.

An introductory word or phrase for the clause after the semicolon

You know that semicolons are used when a writer wants to show a relationship between two independent clauses. (Sometimes it’s actually independent combinations of clauses; for example, you might have a complex sentence on one side of a semicolon and a compound sentence on the other side.) Often a writer uses an introductory word or phrase at the beginning of the clause that follows the semicolon. This word or phrase does not connect the clauses. The semicolon does that. The introductory word or phrase simply makes the relationship between the clauses clearer and more explicit.

Here’s a list of words and phrases that are often used in this way. They’re divided into groups on the basis of having similar or closely related meanings:

for example

therefore

for instance

consequently

however

as a result

on the other hand

in fact

nevertheless

as a matter of fact

also

actually

furthermore

then

in addition

now

in other words

later

Here’s a sample sentence:

According to one national survey by American Demographics, high school boys expected a starting salary of $18,500 for their first full-time job; high school girls expected a starting salary of only $14,700.

The sentence is perfectly fine the way it is. But it can be revised in a very small way so that the contrast it describes is more obvious. To see how this works, fill in the blank with an introductory word or phrase from the list above:

According to one national survey by American Demographics, high school boys expected a starting salary of $18,500 for their first full-time job; _____________, high school girls expected a starting salary of only $14,700.

If you chose however or on the other hand, you’re correct. Either one helps to make the contrast between the clauses more apparent.

Notice that a comma is used after the introductory word or phrase. This is the normal procedure: Use a semicolon before the introductory word or phrase and a comma after it.