When is it correct to use a semicolon?
Which two of these sentences uses the semicolon correctly?
1. Canada is a great country; more than we realize.
2. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is often interred with their bones, however. (apologies to The Bard here!)
3. We have a wealth of knowledge; and, we also have a lot to learn.
4. The keynote speakers were Jane Smith, vice-president of ABC Company; Joe Cool, local radio personality; and Jimmy Dean, president of XYZ Affiliated.
Sentence 2 and 4 are correct.
The semicolon is used to separate two independent clauses when there is no coordinating conjunction between them. (words like and, but, so, for and yet)
Sentence 1 represents a pretty common example of misusing a semicolon. In this case, I think that a “rewrite” would be the best cure for this sentence, perhaps “Canada is a greater country than we realize.”
If you must keep a sentence like this intact, you might replace the semicolon with a dash (–).
If we had used a comma instead of a semicolon in Sentence 2, we would have committed the error that we grammar-types call a comma splice. In this case, the comma wouldn’t be a strong enough punctuation mark to separate these two clauses, which are really two complete sentences.
Sentence 3 is almost correct. If we omit both the semicolon and the comma altogether, the sentence would read correctly. If you must impress by using a semicolon here, you can replace “and” with the word “however.”
Sentence 4 is correct because a semicolon is also used to separate items in a series with commas between them. In this case the semicolon is used to separate the three units of information because we are already using a comma to separate the speaker’s name from their title .
Take it easy, though! In my experience, semicolons should be used in small doses. Aim for a variety of sentence types and lengths with various punctuation marks to improve the readability of your writing.