When writing for web (online articles, website content, social media posts, or blog posts), you should consider removing semicolons for two reasons. First, many readers are unfamiliar with semicolons. Semicolons create complexity within sentences. This intimidates people that require an easier reading level. Second, many writers simply don’t know how or where to use them correctly. As a freelance writer in Forest, Virginia, I find and correct punctuation mistakes. Semicolons sit at the top of my list for misused marks.

When to Use a Semicolon

Joining ideas that are both equal and related, the semicolons have specific grammatical functions.

Between Independent Clauses

First, you can use a semicolon to join two related independent clauses. This replaces a comma and a coordinating conjunction. Examples of coordinating conjunctions are and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet. If you only have a dependent clause linked to an independent clause, use a comma.

Example: Some people eat hot dogs; others prefer hamburgers.

This is the most common use for semicolons and probably the one most recognizable to readers.

With a Conjunctive Adverb

Second, you can use a semicolon to replace conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions. Examples include for example, for instance, accordingly, besides, and furthermore. In this instance, the semicolon replaces the period between the related sentences.

Example: However you eat a hot dog, it’s important to customize it; as a result, you’ll enjoy the savory, personalized experience of pure joy.

I often find that writers shy away from this situation because it’s difficult to punctuate properly. Also, the complexity may not suit easier reading levels.

Dividing Lists

Third, you can place a semicolon in a series of independent clauses that contain commas. You often see this in a long series with lists within lists.

Example: You can find two types of hot dogs at most state fairs: with a bun, which is the traditional format and easy to add condiments; or inside a cornmeal wrapper, known as a corn dog and usually placed on a stick.

You often see this when people are describing multiple steps to a process or lists of things that need to be connected.

Common Mistakes for Semicolons

Whenever I’m proofreading content, I look for these common semicolon mistakes.

  • Many writers mistakenly place semicolons between an independent and a dependent clause.
  • In lists, semicolons often find their way between the wrong phrases.
  •  Often, I find people capitalize the word right after the first clause. This is only correct if that word is a proper noun.
  • Writers sometimes forget to remove the conjunction if they switch two sentences into one joined by a semicolon.

If you are writing for the web, the instances where semicolons can be used usually create a complex sentence. For online readers, this deters anyone who needs an easier reading level to consume information. So, semicolons should only be used if your target audience is more likely to recognize and understand them (a reading level at high school or above). Familiarize yourself with literacy levels in the United States (they’re likely lower than you assume).

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