Top Chef: Semicolon Edition -->

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Top Chef: Semicolon Edition


By Julia Cox, Writing Consultant

A sadistic challenge on Bravo’s Top Chef requires competing chefs to create a dish using ingredients chosen from a mystery box. Ingredients typically include such cryptic items as rock fish, ramp, and black garlic. Predictably, the episode is a panoramic crash and burn for the palate. Leek and mushroom fondue, anyone?

Successfully adding semicolons to your writing can be a similar process of confusion and experimentation. As the befuddled chefs discovered, it’s hard to cook with something you don’t understand.

Semicolons have long been the middle children of punctuation. They are caught in an identity crisis—not a comma, but not yet a period. These Jan Bradys of the grammatical realm are neglected and misunderstood. Consequently, they are often used incorrectly. The Writing Center certainly sees its share of semicolon confusion every week.

Despite their reputation for difficulty, semicolons are actually pretty simple. Semicolons are used in certain cases to separate parts of a sentence. Here’s how to use them in your writing:

1. With items in a series. Use a semicolon to separate items in a series that already contains commas. When you have lengthy elements in a list, semicolons help to make that list more readable.

Example: Josh bought three cupcakes: a vanilla with cream cheese frosting, peanut butter cups, and pecans; a red velvet with sprinkles; and a chocolate with vanilla frosting, sprinkles, and a cherry.
  • In an APA citation, the semicolon is used in a similar way, to separate different sources.
    • Example: The reports on drug use were inconclusive (Kim & Davis, 2001; Sawyer, Smith, & Perry, 1999).
2. With independent clauses. If you want to join two complete sentences, use a semicolon to separate the clauses.

Example: Ben argued the best ice-cream flavor was mint chocolate; Jerry maintained it was cookie dough.
  • Note: Make sure the sentences don’t need a comma and coordinating conjunction instead.
    • Example: Ben conceded Jerry was correct, and he ordered a waffle cone of cookie dough.
    • Because you have a coordinating conjunction here (and, but, or, etc.), a comma is used instead.
Nail down those simple rules and you’re all set. However, don’t get overzealous—an entire page of semicolons would look a little ridiculous. To harken back to my cooking analogy, you don’t want to over-salt. Semicolons are best used appropriately and with restraint. However, they can add welcome variety to the standard litany of periods, commas, and conjunctions that appear in your papers.

Of course, if you want more information on this member of the punctuation spice cabinet, refer to section 4.04 of your APA manual.


  1. Thanks for the clarification. The use of semicolon is always a challenge for me.

    1. You're welcome! It is definitely a tricky punctuation mark.