The semicolon (el punto y coma) is used in Spanish much as it is in English. It also is frequently misused in both languages, as the rules for its application can be more subjective than for the other punctuation symbols (signos de puntuación).
As its Spanish name suggests ("punto y coma" means "period and comma"), a primary use of the semicolon is to represent a break between independent clauses (a part of a sentence that could stand alone because it has a subject and verb) that is stronger than what a comma would stand for but weaker than what a period would stand for. The two clauses should be connected as part of a thought or relate to each other. Here are two examples:
- Cuando estoy en casa, me llamo Roberto; cuando trabajo, me llamo Sr. Smith. (When I'm at home, I'm Robert; when I'm working, I'm Mr. Smith.)
- Estoy a cargo; tengo toda la responsabilidad de proteger la empresa. (I'm in charge; I have all the responsibility for protecting the company.)
Note that separating the clauses with periods would not be incorrect. The use of the semicolon suggests a stronger relationship between the two clauses than making them into separate sentences would.
If the clauses are especially short, a comma is preferred in Spanish:
- Te quiero, eres perfecto. (I love you. You're perfect.)
- Quiero comer, tengo hambre. (I want to eat. I'm hungry.)
Another use for the semicolon is in lists when at least one of the items in the list has a comma. In this way, the semicolon functions as kind of a "supercomma": Encabezan la lista de los países americanos con más decesos Brasil y Colombia con seis cada uno; México con tres; y Cuba, El Salvador y Estados Unidos con dos. (Leading the list of American countries with the most deceased are Brazil and Colombia with six apiece; Mexico with three; and Cuba, El Salvador and the United States with two.)
Semicolons can also be used in vertical lists at the end of each item other than the final one:
- Tenemos tres metas:
vivir con autentididad.
- (We have three goals:
To learn a lot.
To love each other.
To live authentically.)
Note: The plural of el punto y coma is los puntos y coma. You can also use los signos de punto y coma.
(Primary reference source: Diccionario panhispánico de dudas of the Spanish Royal Academy.)