Category Archives: writing skills

Semicolons in a List

I used to teach a remedial English course that ended with a pass-fail final exam: Students submitted an essay to a committee, which decided which students could proceed to Composition I.

I was present at one of those grading sessions when a carelessly written essay (from one of my students – sigh) caused some controversy. Two committee members gave it a thumbs-down, but a third member asked them to reconsider. “This student used a semicolon correctly,” he said. “Doesn’t that indicate real writing skill?”

I held my breath as the paper was reread. (Instructors weren’t supposed to comment about their own students.) There was a whispered conference – and then the committee chair said “Pass!” and put a blue checkmark on the paper.

How did a remedial English student manage to use a semicolon correctly? The answer is that all my students learned how to use semicolons the first day of class – and they were required to use one on every assignment. It was a good motivational tool for students who thought English usage was a mystery they’d never crack…and good insurance for that scary final exam.

Here’s what I told students to do: Write two sentences. Change the first period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter. And I would add: “You now have a master’s degree in semicolons.” (If you, reading this, want a Ph.D. in semicolons, we’ll get there in a moment.)

So you could insert a semicolon after one of the sentences in the paragraph above:

Write two sentences; change the first period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter. CORRECT

But don’t the two sentences need a connection? Yes, they do – but it doesn’t have to be something mystical or complicated. Almost everything we write – even a jokey email – has a string of connected sentences.

Compare my common-sense approach to semicolons with this explanation that I just found on a university website:

Semicolons help you connect closely related ideas when a style mark stronger than a comma is needed.

“A style mark stronger than a comma” – does anyone (besides the person who wrote that) know what it means? How on earth could you apply such a vague explanation?

Here’s another favorite:

Link two independent clauses to connect closely related ideas.

If you, reading this, are an English teacher, I submit this challenge to you: Hand out strips of paper and ask your students to write an independent clause. I guarantee that most students will just stare at you blankly. Yes, they always listen politely when we ramble on about independent clauses. But many of them don’t understand what that we’re talking about.

OK. End of rant. Let me help you get that Ph.D. in semicolons. Here’s what you need to know: Semicolons are required with a special kind of list – one with at least one item containing a comma.

Invited speakers include Jimmy Thompson, a Little League coach; Dr. Winnie Goldblatt, a pediatrician; The Reverend Susan Sanchez, a youth minister; and Lionel Fordham, an elementary school principal.  CORRECT

I wish I could reach out across the miles, hand you your sheepskin, and shake your hand. Congratulations!




Semicolons are easy, and it’s fun to teach them because students are always amazed at how quickly they learn how to use them.

Yesterday I taught a class how to use a semicolon. I began, as I always do, by passing out strips of paper and asking everyone to write a short, simple sentence. I put one on the board myself as an example: Mary heard the doorbell rang.

Then I asked everyone to write another sentence, equally short, related to the first one. Mine was She went to the door.

Then I put the two sentences together with a semicolon:

Mary heard the doorbell rang; she went to the door.

Students inserted semicolons and shared the sentences they’d written. I summarized what they’d learned: A semicolon is like a period, but it’s followed by a lower-case letter. And then I told them we were finished with semicolons.

Gasps from all corners of the room. It’s that easy? Well, yes.

And someone mumbled something about “independent clauses,” someone said that a teacher had told her that a semicolon is a substitute for “because,” and another student asked about semicolons in lists. Another student asked, with some indignation, why I had not emphasized that the two sentences joined by a semicolon had to be related to each other.

Shucks. Why make something simple sound so difficult?

I never talk about “independent clauses.” If I were teaching English majors, I would fine them a dollar every time they said “independent clause.” Stick to sentence–it’s a user-friendly word that’s much easier to understand.

The student who asked about semicolons in lists made a good point. (Here’s an example: The following students won awards: Joe Smith, from Boston; Carol Jones, from Miami; and Richard Jenkins, from Chicago.)

But why complicate things now, while students are learning the basics of punctuation? If I insisted that they learn how to use commas in lists with parenthetical items, many students would be so intimidated that they’d never use a semicolon again.

Here’s what I told the students who asked about the requirement that sentences relate to each other. When, I asked, do you ever write a paragraph containing sentences that don’t relate to each other? And the “because” requirement is just plain silly.

Use semicolons confidently, I said (but sparingly–one per page is a good rule of thumb). If a teacher asks why you chose to put the semicolon in a particular place, say that you had a gut feeling. Or a vision. Or something.

Semicolons are lovely punctuation marks; they add elegance to your writing. Don’t make them harder than they need to be.

It's that easy?

          It’s that easy?