For some reason, semicolons are intimidating. Maybe it’s because they look crazier than they are, or maybe it’s because students are never really forced to use them since we have commas and periods to take their place. Either way, semicolons are your friends and they’re here to improve your writing.  Knowing when to use semicolons isn’t as hard as you think, they’re actually one of the easiest concepts you’ll cover while preparing for the SAT.

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If your instinct is to google “How to use semicolons”, you’re in the right place. This is everything you’ll need to know about how to use semicolons correctly while taking the SAT. We’re starting with the basics, we’ll go over some common mistakes, and then we’ll do some practice questions. Buckle up!

What is a Semicolon?

You’ve probably heard of semicolon’s cousin, the colon. While colons are typically used to introduce a quote, list, or explanation, semicolons are used to separate complete thoughts that are related to each other. Sentences with semicolons typically look different than those with colons. Semicolons and colons have very different purposes, so maybe they’re more like distant cousins, related only by marriage.

Semicolons are essentially a comma with a period floating above it. A good way to remember how to use semicolons correctly (and distinguish them from colons) is to remember that most semicolons can be replaced with a comma or a period, and both are right in front of you in the actual symbol itself. How lucky! Colons could never.

How Do Semicolons Work?

Semicolons are used to separate complete thoughts in a sentence or to combine related thoughts into one sentence. Each side of the semicolon must be a complete thought with its own subject and verb. Semicolons will not have a complete sentence on one side and a dependent clause on the other, so if you see that on the SAT, it is incorrect and you shouldn’t choose that answer as being correct.

Semicolons signal to the reader that the sentence is not over after the first complete thought, the writer still has more to add to it. Even though the first complete thought feels over, there is more to come.

Both sides have to be complete on their own; the semicolon just marries them together. See what I did there?

Let’s take a look at another example:

Semicolons are honestly fun to use; they make me feel impressive.

Semicolons are honestly fun to use. They make me feel impressive.

Semicolons are honestly fun to use, and they make me feel impressive.

All 3 examples of how to use semicolons have 2 sets of complete thoughts, so all 3 examples are correct. If you wanted to replace a semicolon with a comma, it is often necessary to add in a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) for clarity and flow, so keep that in mind on the SAT.

They work as connectors to string closely related thoughts together into a compound sentence rather than using a couple of measly simple sentences. It’s good from a style perspective to vary your sentence types, and semicolons are a perfect, low-effort way to do that. Take your simple sentences that go together and throw a semicolon into the party! It adds healthy variation and looks impressive for being so incredibly simple.

4 Common Semicolon Mistakes

At least SAT mistakes are in pencil so you can definitely fix them!
  1. Confusing semicolons for colons – This is probably one of the most common mistakes people make; they have very different meanings. Colons introduce something, sentences with semicolons separate complete thoughts.
  2. Using a semicolon in a sentence to separate a complete thought and a dependent clause – Each side of the semicolon MUST be a complete thought. If you want to get crazy with dependent clauses, use a comma and a conjunction instead. Semicolons aren’t even hard; misunderstood maybe. “Semicolons aren’t even hard.” is a complete thought. “Misunderstood maybe.” is a fragment or a dependent clause. You would not use a semicolon in this sentence, but you could say, “Semicolons aren’t even hard, but misunderstood maybe.” to fix it. You could also round it out with a complete thought on the right side too: Semicolons aren’t even hard; however, they are misunderstood. This is the correct way to use a semicolon.
  3. Thinking semicolons are just commas with longer pauses – I know they look like fancy commas, but their function is not to create a pause in the writing. They are meant to connect thoughts, not cause drama.
  4. Using a semicolon in a sentence where a comma belongs, or vice versa – If there is no conjunction connecting thoughts, a semicolon is the better choice. If there are conjunctions or dependent clauses, the comma is the better choice.

What Will Semicolons look like on the SAT?

Most likely, you’ll see questions asking you to choose the correct sentence with several variations of punctuation, clauses, and conjunctions as your answer choices.

Here’s the good news: there is only one correct answer on SAT multiple-choice questions, so you can always use the process of elimination to find the right choice.  Using your knowledge of how semicolons work and how there must be a complete thought on either side of it, you can go through the answer choices and eliminate the ones that are definitely incorrect to narrow it down.

If you see a semicolon in an answer choice and you’re unsure of whether or not it is used correctly, all you have to do is change it out with a period. If the sentences on either side of the period make sense and have a complete subject-verb set, it is correct! If not, you know some changes need to happen.

Time to put your knowledge to the test! Which of the following example sentences with semicolons are correct?:

Brad did; Jake did not.

Alicia just doesn’t understand; she’s never been through this before.

The cow didn’t produce the most milk; but she made the best milk.

That new girl seems weird; like she’s from outer space.

Miley’s music is so good; I hope she makes a new album soon.

I need to bring these things on vacation; sunglasses, a hat, a jacket and my water bottle.

Some people prefer Instagram, Facebook or TikTok; however, I like simpler platforms like Twitter, which feels more anonymous.

I would rather not do my homework; the bane of my existence.  

1 km is more like a scroll and a half, but that’s okay. Don’t cheat and check your answers!

Answer key:



Incorrect, a comma would make more sense with the conjunction, or you could eliminate the “but” and use the semicolon

Incorrect, “like from outer space” is not a complete thought.


Incorrect, you would use a colon to introduce a list, not a semicolon.

Correct, even though there is a complex sentence on one side of the semicolon, it still has its own subject-verb set. The semicolon is combining two similar thoughts.

Incorrect, a comma would make more sense here because “bane of my existence” is describing the homework, it is not its own complete thought.

The end is near; we are near the end.

The main point you should take away from this is that sentences with semicolons are not as complicated as people make them out to be. As long as there is a complete thought or sentence on either side of the semicolon, it is being used correctly. On the SAT you’ll have to choose the answer choice with the correct grammar and punctuation, but semicolons are nothing to get caught up on.

Kirsten Mann
Kirsten is the Operations Coordinator at Test Geek. She has a 35 on the ACT Reading Test and enjoys sarcasm and pop culture references.

Descriptors on the SAT: Adjectives, Adverbs, Comparisons and Superlatives

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