Angela’s ABCs – Colons and Semicolons
You don’t see many semicolons around these days and you don’t see many colons either. Maybe they are thought of as rather old-fashioned, tending to break up a text unnecessarily. Most people seem to prefer to stick to commas and full stops, perhaps a little uncertain about when a colon or semicolon might be appropriate. I think that, used correctly, they can add a pace and a rhythm to a piece of writing which can make it livelier, clearer and easier to read.
Semicolons (;) Three Main Uses
1. A semicolon can be used instead of a full stop to separate two main clauses that are closely connected in meaning or that express a clear contrast:
- Lucy had worked consistently hard; she deserved the high marks she obtained.
- The wedding invitations have all been sent out; two hundred guests are expected.
- She was definitely a morning person, up with the lark; her husband was a night owl, working into the small hours.
2. A semicolon may also be used between main clauses linked by a conjunctive adverb (such as however and therefore) or transitional expression (such as in fact or for example):
- They say a picture paints a thousand words; however, I’d rather have a good book any day.
- The crime of stalking is very frightening for the victim; therefore, the sentence of the court should reflect the distress caused.
- Domestic violence is a very pressing problem in our society; in fact, two women are murdered each week by abusive partners or ex-partners.
3. Semicolons are useful between items in a series when the items themselves contain commas or other marks of punctuation. They can help readers recognise the major groupings and avoid confusion:
- Each person should bring the following items: sturdy, well-fitting, water-tight shoes; light, warm, loose clothing; a comfortable, light-weight rucksack; and essential items of backpacking equipment.
- This term’s prize winners are Eddy from Willoughby Hall, Nottingham University; Hugh from University College, Durham; Emily from Balliol College, Oxford; and Susan from the University of Otago, Dunedin.
Colons (:) Three Main Uses
1. One of the main uses of a colon is to introduce lists:
- To make a simple sponge cake, you need the following ingredients: eggs, butter, flour, sugar and milk.
I find it helpful to think whether I can substitute the word ‘namely’ for the colon; if I can, then I know that a colon is appropriate:
- As I struggled for breath in the pounding waves, the main events of my life seemed to pass before my eyes: my happy childhood, my miserable time at boarding school, my golden university days, marriage, children and now this brush with death.
A complete main clause should generally precede a colon used in this way. A colon would not be used in the following sentence:
- We visited Brussels, Paris, Rome, Lisbon and Seville.
But a colon would be used if we said:
- We visited the following European cities: Brussels, Paris, Rome, Lisbon and Seville.
2. A colon can also be used to introduce an explanation or an idea. The colon acts as an indicator or gateway inviting the reader to go on:
- You are left with only one option: give in your notice and then make a complaint of constructive dismissal.
- There are two things to bear in mind about couscous: it can be cooked very quickly, but it tastes like sawdust.
Again, I find it useful to see if I can substitute ‘namely’ in the above situation, and if I can, then I know that the colon is correct.
3. Another use of the colon is before direct speech in a narrative. Some writers prefer to use a comma, but a colon is suitable particularly before a long quotation:
- I shall never forget Polonius’s advice: ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’
Reblogged this on ENGLISH LANGUAGE REVIEW 4U.
Emily and Balliol College, Oxford. What does that mean?
I think it’s where she should have gone if she hadn’t been diverted somewhere else.