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18.4 Writing with Semicolons and Colons

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand when to use semicolons.
  2. Understand when to use colons.
  3. Recognize when semicolons and colons are used incorrectly.

By the time you were taught how to use semicolons and colons in eighth grade or so, you were likely already set in your ways regarding punctuation. Here’s the good news: it isn’t too late to add these marks to your commonly used list and to appreciate how much they can do for your writing.

Using Semicolons

A semicolon is a punctuation mark that signals a pause that is stronger than a comma but weaker than a period. Appropriately, a semicolon (;) looks like a period on top of a comma. The standard uses for semicolons are to separate two independent clauses instead of using coordinating conjunctions, to separate two independent clauses along with a conjunctive adverb, or to clarify a series that includes other punctuation.

Compound Sentences without Coordinating Conjunctions or with Conjunctive Adverbs

Compound sentences with conjunctive adverbs or without coordinating conjunctions require a semicolon. Review Section 18.3 "Eliminating Comma Splices and Fused Sentences" for additional information.

Examples

Compound sentence with a coordinating conjunction: Scout and Jem do not know much about Boo Radley, but they are afraid of him anyhow.

Compound sentence without a coordinating conjunction: Scout and Jem do not know much about Boo Radley; they are afraid of him anyhow.

Compound sentence with a conjunctive adverb: Scout and Jem do not know much about Boo Radley; nevertheless, they are afraid of him anyhow.

Items in a Series with Commas

Typically, commas separate items in a series. Sometimes multiple-word series items include commas. In these cases, the commas within the items would be easily confused with the commas that separate the items. To avoid this confusion, you should use semicolons between these series items. You should not use semicolons to separate items in a series when the items do not include commas.

Examples

Sentence with series that results in comma confusion: In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends justice, the underprivileged, and his children, teaches his kids values, and stands up to the people of the town.

Sentence rewritten using semicolons to avoid comma confusion: In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends justice, the underprivileged, and his children; teaches his kids values; and stands up to the people of the town.

Using Colons

A colon is used to separate parts or to signal that some related information or words are coming.

Introductions

Colons are used to introduce a variety of text components, including explanations and examples.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars: Best Actor; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White; and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
  • There is a good reason no one has ever visited Maycomb, Alabama: it is a fictitious city.

Independent Clauses Where One Restates or Supports the Other

Most sets of independent clauses require a comma and a conjunction or a semicolon between them. An exception is when the second clause clearly restates or supports the first clause.

The movie To Kill a Mockingbird was very well received in Hollywood: it was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Salutations and Isolated Elements

A variety of elements call for colons to separate the details.

  • Time: 5:30 p.m.
  • Letter or e-mail openings: Dear Ms. Moore:
  • Ratios: 4:7
  • Chapters and verses: 7:2–3
  • Titles: Spark Notes: To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Bibliographies: New York: Random House
  • Arrangements of categories and examples (such as this list)

Quotations

When the lead-in to a quotation is a complete sentence, you can use a colon between the lead-in and the quotation.

Scout spoke with her usual frankness and wisdom beyond her years: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Key Takeaways

  • Use semicolons instead of commas between items in a series when the series items have commas.
  • Use a semicolon in compound sentences that do not have coordinating conjunctions.
  • When you use a semicolon to separate two independent clauses, you may also elect to use a conjunctive adverb to clarify the relationship between the two clauses.
  • Use colons as a way to introduce text components, such as explanations and examples, and to separate two independent clauses where one restates or supports the other.
  • Use colons in salutations, time, letter or e-mail openers, ratios, chapters and verses, titles, bibliographies, arrangements of categories and examples, and quotations.

Exercises

  1. Use a semicolon in each of these situations:

    1. items in a series with commas
    2. compound sentence without a coordinating conjunction
    3. compound sentence with a conjunctive adverb
  2. Use a colon in each of these situations:

    1. to introduce a quotation
    2. to write the current time
    3. to write a ratio
    4. to introduce a list
  3. Read three pages of one of your textbooks. Highlight all colons and semicolons, and then determine why they are being used and whether they are being used appropriately.