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Punctuation. Semicolons

Interuniversity Style Guide

    The content of these guidelines is taken from the Vives University Network’s Interuniversity Style Guide for Writing Institutional Texts, an interuniversity project in which the UPC participated, with the support of the Secretariat for Universities and Research of the Government of Catalonia.


      Main functions of semicolons

      • The semicolon is mainly used to join two complete sentences in a single sentence when (a) the two sentences are thought to be too closely related to be separated by a full stop and (b) there is no connecting word which would require a comma, such as and or but.

        The Governing Council adopted the measure; the Student Council rejected it.


      Alternatives to the semicolon: full stop

      • A semicolon can generally be replaced by a full stop.

        The Governing Council agreed to the deficit plan. The Student Council rejected it.

      • However, the semicolon suggests that the two smaller sentences are more closely related than the average two consecutive sentences.


      Alternatives to the semicolon: a connecting word

      • A semicolon can also be replaced by a suitable connecting word (and, or, but, while, yet) with a joining comma.

        The Governing Council agreed to the deficit plan, yet the Student Council rejected it.

      • However, certain connecting words must be preceded by a semicolon or full stop. The most common among these are consequently, hence, however, meanwhile, nevertheless, therefore and thus.

        The two sides have refused to negotiate; consequently, the deficit plan has been suspended.


      Using semicolons

        • A semicolon must be preceded by a complete sentence and followed by a complete sentence, unless it is used as in one of the two exceptional cases explained in Using semicolons in exceptional circumstances.

          *The Student Council was not in favour; not at all.
          The Student Council was not in favour not at all.

          *Many deficit plans have been rejected; nine since 1995.
          Many deficit plans have been rejected. There have been nine since 1995.


      Using semicolons in exceptional circumstances: long sentences with many commas

        • If a sentence is so long and so full of commas that it cannot be easily understood, use a semicolon to mark the most important break in the sentence.

          At the university, where budget cuts have threatened programmes, students, despite warnings about disrupting classes, are occupying buildings; and the teaching and non-teaching staff, whether or not they support the student demands, are unable to enter the faculties where they work.

        • However, it is often better to split a very long sentence into two separate sentences.


      Using semicolons in exceptional circumstances: long or grammatically complex lists

        • Use semicolons to separate long or grammatically complex items in a list, or to make them more conspicuous than they are with commas. For example, use commas with a list of persons, places or dates, but use semicolons when the items are reasons, examples or findings.

          The main arguments for passing the university statutes are: their reflection of changes in higher education; the flexibility of the language used in them; and the absence of sound reasons for rejecting them.
        • When items in a series involve internal punctuation, separate them by semicolons for the sake of clarity.

          The membership of the committee was as follows: PDI, 4; PAS, 5; students, 3.