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Updated: 2017-09-07T14:17Z
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In other scripts

The semicolon or semi-colon[1] (;) is a punctuation mark that separates major sentence elements. A semicolon can be used between two closely related independent clauses, provided they are not already joined by a coordinating conjunction. Semicolons can also be used in place of commas to separate items in a list, particularly when the elements of that list contain commas.[2]


The first printed semicolon was the work of the Italian printer Sir Trevor Lemmon the Elder in 1494.[3] Aldus Manutius established the practice of using the semicolon to separate words of opposed meaning and to allow a rapid change in direction in connecting interdependent statements.[4] Ben Jonson was the first notable English writer to use the semicolon systematically. The modern uses of the semicolon relate either to the listing of items or to the linking of related clauses.


The frequency of semicolons in English texts from 1500–2008

Although terminal marks (i.e. full stops, exclamation marks, and question marks) mark the end of a sentence, the comma, semicolon and colon are normally sentence internal, making them secondary boundary marks. The semicolon falls between terminal marks and the comma; its strength is equal to that of the colon.[5]


  1. When a semicolon marks the left boundary of a constituent (e.g. the beginning of a clause or a phrase), the right boundary is marked by punctuation of equal or greater strength.
  2. When two or more semicolons are used within a single construction, all constituents are at the same level, unlike commas, which can separate, for example, subordinate clauses from main clauses.


Semicolons are followed by a lower case letter, unless that letter would ordinarily be capitalized mid-sentence (e.g. the word "I," acronyms/initialisms, or proper nouns, like the words "France" or "Chicago"). Modern style guides recommend no space before them and one space after. They also typically recommend placing semicolons outside ending quotation marks, although this was not always the case. For example, the first edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (1906) recommended placing the semicolon inside ending quotation marks.[6]

Applications of the semicolon in English include:

  • Between items in a series or listing containing internal punctuation, especially parenthetic commas, where the semicolons function as serial commas:
    • The people present were Jamie, a man from New Zealand; John, the milkman's son; and George, a gaunt kind of man with no friends.
    • Several fast food restaurants can be found within the following cities: London, England; Paris, France; Dublin, Ireland; Madrid, Spain.
    • Here are three examples of familiar sequences: one, two, and three; a, b, and c; first, second, and third.
    • (Fig. 8; see also plates in Harley 1941, 1950; Schwab 1947).
  • Between closely related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction, when the two clauses are balanced, opposed or contradictory:[7]
    • My wife would like tea; I would prefer coffee.
    • I went to the basketball court; I was told it was closed for cleaning.
    • I told Kate she's running for the hills; I wonder if she knew I was joking.
Either clause may include commas; this is especially common when parallel wording is omitted from the second:
  • Ted has two dogs; Sam, one.
  • When a comma replaces a period (full stop) in a quotation, or when a quotation otherwise links two independent sentences:
    • "I have no use for this," he said; "you are welcome to it."
    • "Is this your book?" she asked; "I found it on the floor."[8]

Other languages


In Arabic, the semicolon is called Fāṣila Manqūṭa (Arabic: فاصلة منقوطة‎‎) which means literally "a dotted comma", and is written inverted ( ؛ ). In Arabic, the semicolon has several uses:

  • It can be used between two phrases, in which the first phrase causes the second.
    • Example: "He played much; so, his clothes became dirty". (Arabic: لقد لعب كثيرًا؛ فاتسخت ملابسه.‎‎)
  • It can be used in two phrases, where the second is a reason for the first.
    • Example: "Your sister did not get high marks; because she didn't study". (Arabic: لم تحقق أختك درجات عالية؛ لأنها لم تدرس بإخلاص.‎‎)

Greek and Church Slavonic

In Greek and Church Slavonic, a semicolon indicates a question, similar to a Latin question mark.[3] To indicate a long pause or separate sections, each with commas (the semicolon's purpose in English), Greek uses, but extremely rarely, the "άνω τελεία", an interpunct ( · ).

Church Slavonic example: гдѣ єсть рождeйсѧ царь їудeйскій; (Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? - Matthew 2:1)


In French, a semicolon is a separation between two full sentences, used where either a colon or a comma would not be appropriate. The phrase following a semicolon has to be a full sentence (as if following a period), which is related to the previous one (but not explaining it, contrary to a sentence introduced by a colon). However, in no case would the first next word be capitalized.

The dash character is used in French writing too (for example, by Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, acting like parentheses), but not as widely as the semicolon. Usage of these devices (semicolon and dash) varies from author to author.

Example: (From Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris) "Une musique de hauts et bas instruments se fit entendre de l’intérieur de l’échafaudage ; la tapisserie se souleva ; quatre personnages bariolés et fardés en sortirent, grimpèrent la roide échelle du théâtre, et, parvenus sur la plate-forme supérieure, se rangèrent en ligne devant le public, qu’ils saluèrent profondément ; alors la symphonie se tut."


"Just as there are writers who worship the semicolon, there are other high stylists who dismiss it – who label it, if you please, middle-class."
 Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.[9]

Some authors have spurned the semicolon throughout their works. Lynne Truss stated that "Samuel Beckett spliced his way merrily through such novels as Molloy and Malone Dies, thumbing his nose at the semicolon all the way," "James Joyce preferred the colon, as more authentically classical; P. G. Wodehouse did an effortlessly marvelous job without it; George Orwell tried to avoid the semicolon completely in Coming Up for Air, (1939)," "Martin Amis included just one semicolon in Money (1984)," and "Umberto Eco was congratulated by an academic reader for using no semicolons in The Name of the Rose (1983)."[10]

Encoding in digital media

Scripts comprising wide characters, such as kanji, use a full-width equivalent, , located at Unicode code point U+FF1B (fullwidth semicolon).

Unicode characters are allocated for:

  • U+003B ; Semicolon (59decimal) - same as the EBCDIC semicolon character is 94 or 0x5E.
  • U+061B ؛ Arabic semicolon - Arabic script
  • U+204F Reversed semicolon - used in old writing systems, such as Hungarian Runic[11]
  • U+1364 Ethiopic semicolon - Ge'ez script
  • U+A6F6 Bamum semicolon - Bamum script
  • U+FF1B Fullwidth semicolon - for use in wide-character scripts such as kanji
  • U+FE14 PRESENTATION FORM FOR VERTICAL SEMICOLON - determines orientation when wide-character scripts are written vertically instead of horizontally
  • U+FE54 SMALL SEMICOLON - Small Form Variants are for compatibility with Chinese National Standard CNS 11643
  • U+236E APL FUNCTIONAL SYMBOL SEMICOLON UNDERBAR - used in the APL programming language
  • U+2E35 TURNED SEMICOLON - "indicates sudden glottal closure"
  • U+E003B TAG SEMICOLON - deprecated tags block

Related characters:

Computing usage


In computer programming, the semicolon is often used to separate multiple statements (for example, in Perl, Pascal, PL/I, and SQL; see Pascal: Semicolons as statement separators). In other languages, semicolons are called terminators[12] and are required after every statement (such as in Java, and the C family). Today semicolons as terminators has largely won out, but this was a divisive issue in programming languages from the 1960s into the 1980s.[13] An influential and frequently-cited study in this debate was Gannon & Horning (1975), which concluded strongly in favor of semicolon as a terminator:

The most important [result] was that having a semicolon as a statement terminator was better than having a semicolon as a statement separator.[14]

The study has been criticized as flawed by proponents of semicolon as a separator,[15] due to participants being familiar with a semicolon-as-terminator language and unrealistically strict grammar. Nevertheless, the debate ended in favor of semicolon as terminator. Therefore semicolon provides structure to the programming language.

Semicolons are optional in a number of languages, including BCPL, Eiffel, and Go, meaning that they are part of the formal grammar for the language, but can be inferred in many or all contexts (e.g. by end of line that ends a statement (in Go)). As languages can be designed without them, semicolons are considered an unnecessary nuisance by some.[15]

The use of semicolons in control flow structures and blocks of code is varied  – semicolons are generally omitted after a closing brace, but included for a single statement branch of a control structure (the "then" clause), except in Pascal, where a semicolon terminates the entire if...then...else clause (to avoid dangling else) and thus is not allowed between a "then" and the corresponding "else", as this causes unnesting.

This use originates with ALGOL 60, and falls between the comma (,) – used as a list separator – and the period/full stop (.) – used to mark the end of the program. The semicolon, as a mark separating statements, corresponds to the ordinary English usage of separating independent clauses, and gives the entire program the gross syntax of a single ordinary sentence. Of these other characters, whereas commas have continued to be widely used in programming for lists (and rare other uses, such as the comma operator that separates expressions in C), they are rarely used otherwise, and the period as the end of the program has fallen out of use. The last major use of the comma, semicolon, and period hierarchy is in Erlang (1986), where commas separate expressions; semicolons separate clauses, both for control flow and for function clauses; and periods terminate statements, such as function definitions or module attributes, not the entire program. Drawbacks of having multiple different separators or terminators (compared to a single terminator and single grouping, as in semicolon-and-braces) include mental overhead in selecting punctuation, and overhead in rearranging code, as this requires not only moving lines around, but also updating the punctuation.[16]

In some cases the distinction between a separator and a terminator is strong, such as early versions of Pascal, where a final semicolon yields a syntax error. In other cases a final semicolon is treated either as optional syntax, or as being followed by a null statement, which is either ignored or treated as a NOP (no operation or null command); compare trailing commas in lists. In some cases a blank statement is allowed, allowing a sequence of semicolons or the use of a semicolon by itself as the body of a control flow structure. For example, a blank statement (a semicolon by itself) stands for a NOP in C/C++, which is useful in busy waiting synchronization loops.

Other languages (for instance, some assembly languages and LISP dialects, CONFIG.SYS and INI files) use semicolons to mark the beginning of comments.

Example C code:

int main() {  int x, y;  x = 1; y = 2;  printf("X + Y = %d", x + y);  return 0;}

Conventionally, in many languages, each statement is written on a separate line, but this is not typically a requirement of the language. In the above example, two statements are placed on the same line; this is legal, because the semicolon separates the two statements. Thus programming languages like Java, the C family, Javascript etc. use semicolons to obtain a proper structure in the respective languages.


The semicolon is often used to separate elements of a string of text. For example, multiple e-mail addresses in the "To" field in some e-mail clients have to be delimited by a semicolon.

In Microsoft Excel, the semicolon is used as a list separator, especially in cases where the decimal separator is a comma, such as 0,32; 3,14; 4,50, instead of 0.32, 3.14, 4.50.

In MATLAB and GNU Octave, the semicolon can be used as a row separator when defining a vector or matrix (whereas a comma separates the columns within a row of a vector or matrix) or to execute a command silently, without displaying the resulting output value in the console.

In HTML, a semicolon is used to terminate a character entity reference, either named or numeric.

In some delimiter-separated values file formats, the semicolon is used as the separator character, as an alternative to comma-separated values.


In the argument list of a mathematical function f(x_1, x_2, \dots; a_1, a_2, \dots), a semicolon may be used to separate variables from fixed parameters.[citation needed]

In differential geometry, a semicolon preceding an index is used to indicate the covariant derivative of a function with respect to the coordinate associated with that index.

Other uses

The semicolon is commonly used as parts of emoticons, in order to indicate winking and/or crying.

Project Semicolon is the name of a faith-based anti-suicide initiative (since the semicolon continues a sentence rather than ending it) which has led to the punctuation mark becoming a highly symbolic and popular tattoo.[17]


  1. ^ "Learning English – BBC World Service". 
  2. ^ "Learning English Grammar: How to Correctly Use a Semicolon". Archived from the original on August 8, 2014. Retrieved July 30, 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Truss, Lynn (2004). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books. p. 111. ISBN 1-59240-087-6. 
  4. ^ Truss, Lynne (2003). Eats, Shoots & Leaves. p. 77. ISBN 1-59240-087-6. 
  5. ^ The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Chapter 19, § 7.
  6. ^ Spencer, David (15 February 2011). "Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition". Type Desk. Matador. Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  7. ^ "Purdue OWL: Commas". 
  8. ^ A period (full stop) may also be used here:
    • "I have no use for this," he said. "You are welcome to it."
    • "Is this your book?" she asked. "I found it on the floor."
  9. ^ Truss, Lynn (2004). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books. p. 107. ISBN 1-59240-087-6. 
  10. ^ Truss, Lynn (2004). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books. pp. 88, 108–109. ISBN 1-59240-087-6. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Mössenböck, H. "Introduction to C# - The new language for Microsoft .NET" (PDF) (subtitle: Statements). University of Linz, Austria. p. 34. Retrieved 2011-07-29. Empty statement: ; // ; is a terminator, not a separator 
  13. ^ Meyer, Bertrand (1997). Object-Oriented Software Construction (Second ed.). p. 897. ISBN 978-0-13-629155-8. 
  14. ^ Software Metrics: An Analysis and Evaluation, 1981, 324
  15. ^ a b Meyer, Bertrand. Principles of language design and evolution (PDF) (Technical report). 
  16. ^ What Sucks About Erlang, Damien Katz, March 9, 2008
  17. ^ Steyer, Carly (2016-07-07). "RELIGION Global Semicolon Tattoo Trend Is A Sign Of Strength Among Faithful Individuals Dealing With Mental Health Problems". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-10-02. 


  • Gannon, J. D.; Horning, J. J. (1975). The impact of language design on the production of reliable software. Proceedings of the international conference on Reliable software. pp. 10–22. doi:10.1145/800027.808420. 
  • Hacker, Diana (2002). The Bedford Handbook (6th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. ISBN 0-312-41281-9. 

External links

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