Most people think that semi-colons are really difficult to use, but actually they are very easy. In fact, when I was working at a university in China, I could teach my students how to use them in just one simple lesson. That’s what I’m going to do for you today.
Semi-Colons: Are they important for IELTS?
First of all, let’s ask an important question. Do you really need to know about semi-colons for IELTS? The answer is basically no. They are not that important. However, the same could be said of most words in the English language. You could easily write an essay without the word “however,” but it’s still useful to know it!
Moreover, punctuation is quite important. Most examiners will tell you that students seldom lose marks for punctuation mistakes. This is because punctuation is actually quite complicated in English and even native speakers struggle. My friends and family are all terrible at using commas, and even books by professional writers contain various errors!
Still, it is important that you know the basics of English punctuation. Writing an essay with no or few punctuation mistakes could really help you to move from band 6.5 to 7 or higher. In fact, that brings me to this piece of wisdom to start the day:
The most important punctuation mark you need to know for IELTS is the full stop (known in American English as a period). If you cannot use this properly, you would struggle even to score a band 6 for IELTS writing.
Beyond that, everything else is a bonus.
How do you use a semi-colon?
There are three ways to use a semi-colon in written English and I will show you each of them in turn. I will also order these in terms of importance.
1) Use a semi-colon in a compound sentence before a conjunctive adverb
Firstly, let’s review what a compound sentence is. This is a sentence comprised of two independent clauses. [You can read about sentence types here. It’s really important!] Here is an example:
- Last year, I visited the Parthenon in Athens; however, it was undergoing renovation work.
Here, we have two independent clauses:
- I visited the Parthenon in Athens
- it was undergoing renovation work
I have combined them with the conjunctive adverb “however.” This is a very common one. Other common conjunctive adverbs include:
- for example
[You can see a list of common conjunctive adverbs here.]
The formula for this sort of sentence is quite simple:
INDEPENDENT CLAUSE+ SEMI-COLON + CONJUNCTIVE ADVERB + COMMA + INDEPENDENT CLAUSE
Here are some more examples that follow this structure:
- The two countries had been at war for the previous decade; as a result, brokering peace would not be easy.
- The dog and cat lived together all their lives; however, they were certainly not friends.
Just remember the punctuation placement: The semi-colon goes before the conjunctive adverb and the comma goes after it. You should not forget either of these points.
2) Use a semi-colon to link two very closely related independent clauses
Again, this is a form of compound sentence, but I would say it is much less common than the previous type, and it is also a little harder to use correctly. Basically, in this case we take two independent clauses whose meanings are clearly related and separate them with the semi-colon like this:
- There was a big traffic jam; cars were barely moving around town.
In such cases, there can be little doubt about the relationship between the two parts of the sentence. If we wanted to make it more obvious, we could add a conjunctive adverb like the rule above:
- There was a big traffic jam; as such, cars were barely moving around town.
- There was a big traffic jam; therefore, cars were barely moving around town.
So what is the purpose in this type of sentence? Well, to be honest it is a little rare because it is so hard to use correctly. Essentially, it is just another way of combining ideas into a concise form.
The important thing to remember, however, is that these clauses must be clearly related. Here is another example:
- The days were beginning to get shorter; it seemed the night got earlier and earlier.
In this case, the meanings are obviously tied together. There is no real need to add a word that explains the relationship between them.
I would strongly recommend that you avoid this type of semi-colon use unless you are completely confident with it. It is one of those tricky things that even native speakers struggle with, and I seldom see it used correctly except for in academic writing or by professional authors.
It is one of those parts of English that it is hard to explain and sometimes you just need to “get the feel” for whether it is right or wrong. Indeed, in most cases the sentence could simply be improved by changing it to make the meaning clearer.
3) Use a semi-colon when listing items that include commas
Here is another rare use for semi-colons. We use them when we want to separate items in a list, but those items already have commas inside them! 😬 Yeah, I know, it’s pretty uncommon and an annoying thing to deal with, but bear with me…
When we list items in English, it is actually pretty easy. We put a comma between each item and then separate the last one with “and” or “or,” depending on the situation. For example:
- Last year, I travelled to France, Germany, and Spain.
However, we might want to say that we travelled to a city within each of these countries, such as “Bordeaux, France” or “Barcelona, Spain.” Because these items have commas now, it would be a little confusing to separate each one with another comma. Therefore, we use semi-colons:
- Last year, I travelled to Bordeaux, France; Munich, Germany; and Barcelona, Spain.
This also applies to American cities and states:
- We have packages going out today to Birmingham, Alabama; Galveston, Texas; and Jacksonville, Florida.
Another use would be when each of those items has a non-essential relative clause attached to it, but this is extremely complicated and rare:
- I want you to fix my laptop, which has been broken for two weeks; the TV, which stopped working last Monday; and the oven, which hasn’t worked in ages.
However, once again I would suggest that this is rare for IELTS writing! In fact, I have probably never seen anyone use this structure in an essay. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it. If you did, your examiner would probably be quite impressed, but you would also not be penalised for failing to use it.
A Conclusion of Sorts
Semi-colons are not that common in English, but in academic writing you do find them fulfilling certain purposes. You could easily write an amazing IELTS essay without using a semi-colon but knowing how to use one can definitely help you a little. As such, I would suggest reviewing the above rules and in particular focusing on rule #1.
Just remember, though: It is far more important to know the rules for commas and full stops than semi-colons, so make sure that you are confident with the basics before you learn anything advanced. You can read a detailed guide to IELTS punctuation here and you can also find more advice in my Grammar for IELTS book.