Not unlike the apostrophe, the semi-colon is another commonly misused punctuation mark in the English language. It may be that many people do not know when to use the semi-colon as it is much less common in modern times than say, the twentieth century, when written English was more complexly constructed; simplicity is often favoured in contemporary writing.
While the colon (:) is used to indicate that an explanation, example or quotation may follow, the semi-colon can be used to:
- Break two equal clauses in a sentence, much like the use of 'and':
"John walked to school in the pouring rain; he wasn't wearing a raincoat"
- To separate complex items in a list, alongside the comma:
"Schools we can learn English at are in: London, England; Sydney, Australia; theUSA; and Malta"
We can see that the semi-colon is another way to join words or clauses in a sentence, similar to how we use 'and', 'or' and 'but'. To further clarify its usage, let's look at another example:
"Sprachcaffe Malta will be holding a leaving party for students on Sunday. This will give us a last chance to say goodbye to the friends we made."
These two sentences are equally related, so we could join them to make the statement flow better when read. Try replacing the first full stop (.) with 'and', and read the sentence again:
"Sprachcaffe Malta will be holding a leaving party for students on Sunday and this will give us a last chance to say goodbye to the friends we made."
This isn't necessarily incorrect, but it doesn't read as nicely as the original example; we need something in between - a semi-colon!
"Sprachcaffe Malta will be holding a leaving party for students on Sunday; this will give us a last chance to say goodbye to the friends we made."
Hopefully you will now understand when to use the semi-colon, that it connects clauses and in spoken English has an affect similar to a comma. As the appearance of the mark itself, think of it as neither a full stop nor a comma, but somewhere in between. You should take extra care not to start using the semi-colon in place of commas; it can be easy to get carried away with this punctuation mark when trying to make your writing look more polished.