I know the basics of a semicolon—at least I think I do. Aside from delimiting verbose lists, it separates independent clauses of a sentence. So, if you have two independent clauses in a sentence, you can either separate them with a semicolon, or a comma along with a conjunction—like "but".

However, I've noticed a few authors actually using a semicolon with a conjunction, like:

<independent clause 1>; but <independent clause 2>

Can anyone shed some light on when this is preferable to just a comma? Is this simply a matter of personal preference?

6 Answers 6


To me, it seems to be purely personal preference. The semicolon between clauses suggests a connection between the sentences that is stronger than if there were a period between the two.

As (to me) it is generally acceptable to start sentences with the short conjunctions and and but, I believe the general rule can extend to independent clauses joined by a semicolon.


He is the most disagreeable person I've ever had the misfortune to meet, and I dislike his style; but I must admit that he gets the job done.

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    I can't imagine a more perfect example. Thank you! Apr 12, 2011 at 19:09
  • Excellent answer. The length of the sentence has something to do with it as well. Apr 12, 2011 at 22:45

You can use a conjunction whenever you feel like doing so but it is more common when the semi-colon isn't able to distinguish between potential options:

I like vanilla and chocolate; strawberry is okay.

I like vanilla and chocolate; and strawberry is okay.

I like vanilla and chocolate; but strawberry is okay.

Of these, I prefer the first and third. The inclusion of the semi-colon splits the sentence appropriately and the conjunction helps clarify the tonal shift of the last segment.


My observation is that semicolons are most commonly used with conjunctions when they're joining two sentences that themselves have internal punctuation (commas). The semicolon helps clarify the 'weighting' of the different parts of the compound sentence. The same rationale for using semicolons in lists where some components of the list have commas. An example:

When they went down to the beach, wind was gusting in off the water; and on the horizon, clouds steepled up high into the glowering, grey sky.


Since some people frown on beginning sentences with conjunctions, it's one of those rules you have to break somewhat carefully. Let's take MrHen's excellent example above:

I like vanilla and chocolate; but strawberry is okay.

In this case, a comma would probably get the job done. The semicolon offers more of a break, and here works to distance strawberry a bit more - the author is tossing a backhanded sop to strawberry. The two clauses are so tightly linked in meaning that even though we're starting the second one with a conjunction, the reader doesn't notice.

  • Personally, I would actually have used a dash or reworded the sentence. But a semicolon is always great for a backhanded sop.
    – MrHen
    Apr 13, 2011 at 18:18

Codified rules, Strunk & White (particularly, the final statement):

"If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.

Stevenson's romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures. It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.

It is of course equally correct to write the above as two sentences each, replacing the semicolons by periods.

Stevenson's romances are entertaining. They are full of exciting adventures. It is nearly half past five. We cannot reach town before dark.

If a conjunction is inserted, the proper mark is a comma (Rule 4)."


No, actually, the rules are quite more codified than personal style preference. There are two place in which one uses a semicolon. The first place is linking two independent clauses without the use of a coordinating conjunction (such as "so" or "but"). For example:

Andrew is witty, intelligent, and charming; Adam, on the other hand, is a libertarian dumbass.

Using a semicolon and a conjunction is wrong:

"I like vanilla and chocolate; but strawberry is okay."

This breaks the rules because it uses a semicolon where it ought to use a comma. This rule is not as devotedly observed as I, a veteran grammar teacher, would like.

The other time where semicolons are used correctly is when making a list in which the items of that list contain commas. For example:

"The panel consists of John, a senator from Ohio; Paul, a local government official; and Marianne, the leading research expert on the topic."

These are actual rules and are not dictated by how you feel towards your readers.

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    Hi Andrew, welcome to stackexchange! Can you share your source for this? Strunk and White state simply that Independent Clauses should be joined using a semicolon, or with a comma and a conjunction. Doesn't "but strawberry is okay" qualify as an independent clause? If so, wouldn't using it with a semicolon be ok? Apr 12, 2011 at 20:17
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    I second the request for a source for what these "actual, codified rules" are :)
    – psmears
    Apr 12, 2011 at 21:31
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    As a linguist an a descriptivist, I assert that the rules of the English language is not governed by a single entity or language academy, but on norms that are decided by the community of speakers and writers. Apr 13, 2011 at 0:02
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    My hunches suggest that your codified rules also claim starting a sentence with a conjunction is Bad and Evil but authors and readers completely ignore the rule because it serves a very specific purpose that would be unnecessarily difficult to accomplish otherwise. The semicolon+conjunction is not a typical construction that should be used sparingly and when other options have been rejected or dismissed for miscellaneous reasons. No one is going to trip on parsing it; it conveys a specific meaning; why denounce it other than to follow someone else's rules about your own language?
    – MrHen
    Apr 13, 2011 at 18:15
  • -1. There is almost nothing factually correct in this answer. If you are a grammar teacher, you should know that English grammar does not consist of a corpus of definitive rules set in stone by some arbitrary authority. Aug 16, 2016 at 17:38

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