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.’


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