Pesky Colons and Semicolons

By Catherine Osborn

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These two forms of punctuation are often used incorrectly for one another.

Colons can be used to direct a reader to examples or significant words:

His main flaw is his downfall: egotism.

Also, they direct a reader to a list of things:

A lot of vegetables are the same color: lettuce, peppers, snow peas, and celery.

Where a colon can be confused for semicolon usage is when it joins two sentences and the second sentence illustrates the first:

Most critics agree on one point: Titanic was his crowning achievement.

Semicolons are mainly used to combine two disjointed, yet related, thoughts.

As I drove home I reflected on the movie; it had a certain quality to it that made me reminiscent.

Also, semicolons mark more emphasis than just a comma and can be used like so:

Hand Sally the tomato; it belongs to her.

Semicolons can be used to separate one list from another:

We learned the basics of grammar, punctuation, and spelling; the ins and outs of brainstorming and getting started; and how to take notes in an interview.

Semicolons can also join independent clauses that are joined by words like however, therefore, nevertheless, moreover, etc…

He started his career in the theater; however, he quickly made his way into films.

Bottom line:
Semicolons are not used to introduce quotations or lists.
Colons are not interchangeable with semicolons either.

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5 Responses to “Pesky Colons and Semicolons”

  • Roshawn

    Thank you for this timely post, Claire. For some time now I’ve noticed my misuse of those pesky colons and semicolons in my own writing.

    This will definitely make editing a little more toilsome. But it’s a small price to pay for the possibility of writing a bestselling novel. 🙂


  • Amna

    its still a bit uncleared. i want more examples and tips for this.

  • tHeSoul

    Interesting article!

    I’ve been trying my hand at literary translation recently. In the source language that I translate from, it is quite normal to have long sentences made up of smaller sentences joined together by conjunctions, commas and so on. I’ve always thought of the semicolon as a “pretentious anachronism” but have been forced to employ it in my translations in order to remain faithful to the style of the original text. So, I find it reassuring that what I thought about the semicolon is not entirely true.

    However, there are some instances where I find to difficult to judge where the semicolon should be used. For example, I came across the following sentence in a translated text.

    “There’s just one thing I’d like you to understand: I’m not the least bit proud that I came of age then; I’m simply reporting the facts.”

    Has the colon been used properly in this case? Please explain.

    Thank you.

  • Suzy-Durham CT

    Here’s my question: Should the word following the colon be capitalized (as “should” is in this example)? Should it be capitalized if the words following the colon form a complete sentence, but not if they simply comprise a list?

  • Claire

    If the list is of proper nouns, then yes, otherwise, I’d say no.

    And to thesoul: yes, that is the correct usage.

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