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Style Manual

Semicolons

Semicolons link sentences. They can complicate sentences for users if overused. Do not use them at the end of bullet and numbered list items.

Avoid using a semicolon to link sentences

Short, simple sentences are easier to read. Overusing semicolons makes writing more difficult to understand.

Semicolons can create a break that is stronger than a comma but weaker than a full stop. They can link 2 sentences that share or develop an idea. The information must be closely related.

Example

He wrote a report for each group. The red report was for one group; the blue report was for the other.

Sometimes it’s optional; sometimes it’s compulsory.

Instead of a semicolon, it’s usually best to use either:

  • a full stop followed by a new sentence
  • a comma before the last item, followed by a conjunction.

Sentences should be in plain language and no longer than 25 words. Don’t use a semicolon if all it does is make your sentence longer.

Write this

Find out if it’s optional or compulsory before you start. Ask someone to help you if you don’t know the difference.

Not this

Find out if it’s optional or compulsory before you start; ask someone to help you if you don’t know the difference.

Too much punctuation makes text crowded and difficult to read. If a sentence has a lot of punctuation marks, it might be a sign that the sentence is too long or complex. Try to rewrite into shorter, clearer sentences.

If you have to use a semicolon, on both sides of the semicolon write full sentences. Other than in some sentence lists, it’s incorrect to have a sentence fragment on one side of the semicolon.

Correct

Staff can leave at any time; they don’t need a work schedule.

Incorrect

Staff can leave at any time; no work schedule. 

Don’t end bullet and numbered list items with semicolons

You don’t need a semicolon at the end of each list item for bullet and numbered lists. It clutters the list and makes it hard to read.

Like this

The successful applicant will demonstrate:

  • integrity, persistence and good judgement
  • experience in projects of this type
  • a sound understanding of interdepartmental relationships.
Not this

The successful applicant will demonstrate:

  • integrity, persistence and good judgement;
  • experience in projects of this type; and
  • a sound understanding of interdepartmental relationships.

Separate in-text references with semicolons

Use a semicolon between each reference when you have more than one in-text reference in brackets.

Example

Effective leaders are adaptable (Nicoll 2019; Taylor 2018; Weir 2020).

Use a bullet or numbered list instead of semicolons in a complex sentence

Complex lists in sentences can be hard to read. If you can’t use a bullet or numbered list, separate list items with:

  • commas if the list is simple, such as a list of single words
  • semicolons if the list is complex, such as a list of items that already contain commas or conjunctions.

In complex lists, you need semicolons to show what goes with what.

It is almost always better to break a complex list into a bullet or numbered list to make it easier to read.

Example

The successful applicant will demonstrate integrity, persistence and confidence. [No semicolon is needed, as each item is a single word or phrase with no other punctuation.]

The successful applicant will demonstrate integrity, persistence and confidence; experience in projects of this type; and a sound understanding of interdepartmental relationships. [Semicolons are needed, as some list items have a comma in them.]

The project will go ahead in Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria. [No semicolon is needed, as each item is a single word.]

The project will go ahead in Rose Bay, Tasmania; West End, Queensland; and Fitzroy North, Victoria. [Semicolons are needed, as some list items have a comma in them.]

Release notes

The digital edition is consistent with the sixth edition in its advice on semicolons. A minor change is that it promotes use of other punctuation marks instead.

The Content Guide recommended avoiding semicolons. Sources cited as evidence support the uses explained in the digital edition.

About this page

Evidence

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2020) ‘Punctuation: semicolon’, The ABC style guide, ABC website, accessed 21 January 2020.

American Psychological Association (2020) ‘6.4 Semicolon’, Publication manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th edn, American Psychological Association, Washington DC.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) ‘7.4: semicolon’, Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Oxford University Press (2016) ‘4.4 Semicolon’, New Oxford style manual, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

University of Chicago (2017) ‘6.56 Use of the semicolon’, Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

References

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019) Course notes and exercises: editing and proofreading for the workplace, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman S (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Strunk W and White EB (2000) The elements of style, 4th edn, Longman, New York.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero-tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London, 2003.

This page was updated Monday 21 September 2020.

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