I have read about the use of semicolons in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R. L. Trask. In the book, it gives a few essential rules that must be fulfilled for a semicolon to be used correctly:

  1. The two sentences must be felt to be too closely related to be separated by a full stop;
  2. There is no connecting word which would require a comma, such as and or but;
  3. The special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

Also, the writer stresses the fact that the two sentences on either side of the semicolon must be full sentences.

Now my question is in regard to the following sentence (I have composed it myself for a piece of writing):

The south [a region] sided with the [rightful] King; the north [another region] with the usurper [a self-proclaimed king].

The thing about my sentence is that the second part contains no verb (which is omitted to avoid repeating the verb sided). Is the sentence after the semicolon still considered a full sentence?

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    I am afraid it was not. My question is primarily about the sentence after the semicolon. If you write it with the verb (the north sided with the usurper), then it is clearly a full sentence. However, when you remove the verb in 'The south sided with the King; the north with the usurper', is it still a full sentence? Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 11:12
  • There is doubtless some prescriptivist who will say 'The semicolon is necessary to separate the main clauses / implied main clauses'. But as Truss points out in the linked article, judicious use of comma splices is not incorrect per se – and can even be preferable. So, while the semicolon is not 'incorrect' here, I'd consider it unwieldy, too highfalutin', and unnecessary for clarity (there being no other commas in the string). I'd always choose the comma here. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 11:15
  • I was answering your title and, as I see it, basic question. Neither choice is 'incorrect', but I consider the comma far better in this example. What you call the string after the comma/semicolon in your example isn't really relevant (and there are probably still different opinions among grammarians) if Trask is wrongly stating 'you must use a semicolon if the strings on either side are both main clauses [usually considered identical to sentences]'. The 'rules' given are useful but too prescriptive. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 11:21
  • I see your point. I suppose I should just choose the one that I prefer as long as clarity is preserved. Thank you a lot! Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 11:27

4 Answers 4


Your sentence is both elegant and totally correct! It is not mandatory that the semicolon should be followed by a complete sentence, especially when the verb before the semicolon is repeated after it.


He was a war-monger; his son, a pacifist. (He was a war-monger; his son was a pacifist)

Moreover, the semicolon serves to suggest a pause of half a beat for the reader, and can be followed by 'and' or 'but' where appropriate, thereby not forming a complete sentence in the second part, as in "the south sided with the king; and the north, with the usurper." The use of 'and' as well as the comma after 'north' is optional.

It is often the writer's choice whether to use the comma or the semicolon, or use neither.

Example: 3 correct ways to write the same sentence --

He read a lot and gained a lot from the reading.

He read a lot, and gained a lot from the reading.

He read a lot; and he gained a lot from the reading.

(See how he is added to balance the pause caused by the semicolon)

So you see how (once your basic grammar becomes strong and you become confident of avoiding errors) it's all a matter of style!

  • Thank you very much! That cleared things up for me. I am glad that the rules for the semicolon are not as strict as I thought they were. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 11:19
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    I don't consider the choice of a semicolon here 'elegant'. It's too heavy-duty in my opinion. Obviously it would be necessary in your example 'He was a war-monger; his son, a pacifist.' There's another thread here dealing with over-heavy-duty punctuation, but I can't find it. // Please add supporting evidence to 'answers'; otherwise, they sound like what is possibly mere opinion, and should be restricted to 'comments'. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 11:31
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    Experts please excuse! The problem with so many of the sentences asked is that they are not really grammatically wrong but only unusual. Since English is such a flexible language, 'rules' should not be used to burden the writer. If it is neither obviously wrong nor awkward, I'd say it's fine, because the language accommodates it. If it is really wrong then you would surely say so! The presence of learned moderators here gives me the confidence to give unsupported answers, which in fact is all that I can give. If it is really incorrect, feel free to correct it, quoting the proper rule. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 11:46
  • I agree that the semicolon is appropriate/acceptable in the OP's sentence. I disagree that it is acceptable when followed by "and". In that I agree with rule no2 in the OP's post, based on Trask.
    – AndyT
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 12:00
  • Yes, but is it a 'guide' or a 'rule?' Whether OP uses comma or semicolon, the sentence will be perfectly readable, and the meaning will not change. Also, if he used 'and' after choosing to use a semicolon where it is quite appropriate, if not necessary (not that he intends to use 'and', looking at the question) would it be a grammatical error? Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 12:12

I would use a comma, not a semicolon in the example you are providing. As user Edwin Ashworth was suggesting in his comment, often it is intuitively correct to use a comma instead of a semicolon. The strict use of semicolons in such cases seems outdated to me today.


If a comma were used instead of the semicolon, your sentence would arguably contain a 'comma splice' (though gapped structures, as this is, are rather different). Some traditionalists might say that that is unacceptable. However, many (I'd say more enlightened) Anglophones are prepared to accept comma splices where the sentence is reasonably short and expresses closely related truths (eg Man proposes, God disposes). This is particularly so when the second clause is contrastive (Wallraff, in the book mentioned below, suggests that a comma can be used to join independent clauses when “the whole point of two clauses is to contrast negative and affirmative assertions”.

I'd say that is true here. Barbara Wallraff in her book "Word Court" goes further than 'a comma may on occasion be acceptable', commenting on the sentence

It's not a comet, it's a meteor.:

[P]unctuating this sentence with a semicolon would be like using a C-clamp to hold a sandwich together.

(On the other hand,

Holmes found Moran, he was dead.

is best avoided.)

But using a semicolon in your example is probably even less criminal than using a C-clamp on a sandwich.


The convention is that only clauses which are independent can be separated by a semicolon. Your second clause is not independent and therefore should be separated from the first with a comma.

Your second clause is elliptical. The antecedent of an elided element (here it's the verb "sided") must appear in the same context; a semicolon would mark the start of a new context.

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