Semicolons join two independent clauses with related meanings into a single, more complex sentence. Because of this relationship, the first word after a semicolon does not need to be capitalized unless it is a proper noun.
Here’s a quick guide to what semicolons are, how they are used, and how capitalization comes into play.
How Semicolons Are Used
A semicolon is often described in terms of its effect on how long a reader pauses. It’s stronger than a comma but softer than a period, meaning that the reader will pause longer but won’t stop completely.
In their most basic form, semicolons are used to join two independent clauses into a single sentence. Independent clauses can stand as sentences on their own, but, joined together, might make more sense grammatically or may simply sound better when read.
I am going to be late. Begin the meeting without me.
I am going to be late; begin the meeting without me.
In the above example, though both versions of the sentence are correct, the writer may use the second one to convey more urgency.
Semicolons are also used to distinguish the parts of a list of items, especially when the items are long or contain commas that would make standard list format difficult to read.
I’m going on vacation to: London, England; Paris, France; Sydney, Australia; and Berlin, Germany.
Finally, semicolons can be used either to delete a conjunction that makes a sentence too clunky or connect conjunctive adverbs without entirely breaking the sentence up.
It’s going to be a good day, and I’m sure of it.
It’s going to be a good day; I’m sure of it.
Once again, though both sentences are technically correct, the second is slightly easier to read.
You can also use a semicolon to connect a dependent clause to an independent clause, as a way of giving the dependent clause more emphasis without making it into a sentence fragment. These phrases are called elliptical constructions. This, however, is a practice usually reserved for poetic writing. You’re unlikely to use it in everyday writing.
Capitalization with Semicolons
There really is only one rule when it comes to knowing which words to capitalize when semicolons are involved, and it’s surprisingly simple. Because their use is intended to show a relationship between the two clauses, you don’t need to capitalize the first word after the semicolon.
The sky is blue. It’s a beautiful color.
The sky is blue; it’s a beautiful color.
Standard rules of punctuation still apply; if the first word after a semicolon is a proper noun (names and the pronoun “I”), it’s still capitalized in the usual way.
Debbie likes the rain. Mike does not.
Debbie likes the rain; Mike does not.
Unlike many other grammatical rules of the English language, the rules for capitalization with semicolons, thankfully, do not change based on their use. Whether you are writing two conjoined phrases or a list, you can follow the same capitalization rule across the board.
Semicolons are one of if not the most overlooked basic punctuation marks. They’re considered complicated and, while true in the technical sense that they make sentences longer and able to contain more information, that’s not true in the common sense of the word. Just remember that a word only needs to be capitalized after a semicolon, if the word is a proper noun. A semicolon is as easy to use as a regular colon, a comma, or a period.
Knowing a few basic rules about what they are, how they work, and how they’re used can let you add semicolons into your writing with ease, and look more professional and well-spoken for it.