Our monthly column on grammar & usage by Allison VanNest and her team at Grammarly.
The semicolon is a polarizing piece of punctuation. For some, it seems redundant because a period or a comma may suffice in its place. Others believe that the semicolon is irreplaceable because it allows authors to make subtle connections between ideas. Regardless of where you stand, it is important to understand when – and how – to use both semicolons and colons in your writing so that your text will stand out for the right reasons.
In general, a semicolon is used to connect ideas where there is not otherwise a connecting word. A colon is used to explain what will follow in a piece of writing, and is typically used after an independent clause to direct a reader’s attention to a list, quote, or other information.
When used properly, both the semicolon and the colon can be a great tool for writers. However, because the grammatical use cases for these types of punctuation can be difficult to remember, some writers err on the side of overuse – creating complex, over-punctuated prose that would turn off even the most avid reader.
The semicolon has three main uses. First, it joins independent clauses in a compound sentence that lacks a coordinating conjunction such as but, and, for, etc. When using a semicolon, it is common to see a word that connects the first clause and the second clause of the sentence, called a transitional phrase. Transitional phrases include the words however, of course, as a result, therefore, etc.
Here is an example of how to use a semicolon to join two independent clauses (using a transitional phrase): She went to the mall for a new shirt; however, she bought pants instead.
Another use of a semicolon is to break up a long list of items in which a comma is already present. Here is an example of this use-case: She received a promotion because she is always punctual and never misses work; takes her work seriously and completes tasks promptly; and communicates well with co-workers.
The third way to use a semicolon correctly involves a coordinating introductory phrase and a word that is used before a list. An example of this: You will want to be well-prepared in your packing; for example, pants, shirts, shoes, pajamas, and a heavy coat.
The most common use of a colon is after a main clause, which is followed by a list of items. An example of this type of sentence would be: She bought all of the items for the party yesterday: balloons, hats, paper plates, and spoons.
A colon can also be used as a way to separate a rule, example, or explanation from an independent clause. For example: She gave it a lot of thought: It was time to take a vacation. Remember to capitalize the word following a colon if it begins an independent clause (which is a clause that could stand as a complete sentence).
Colons are also commonly used following salutations in letters, in titles of books and movies, and in memo headings. Colons are most commonly used incorrectly when they are added unnecessarily. For example: My favorite things to do are: Hiking, biking, and running. Because this sentence does not include two separate independent clauses, it would not require the use of a colon. The sentence can be correctly written as one full sentence, without any colon or separation.
Some writers describe the semicolon as the most underused piece of punctuation, while others believe that it is the most overused. U.S. novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, once said that the only thing a semicolon shows is that a writer has been to college. And while the Grammarly team sees an important place for both the semicolon and the colon in quality writing, we know it is more important to maintain the quality of your written work by using each only in the correct circumstance.
A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and nearly 600,000 Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.
Now it’s your turn. Do you like colons and semicolons? Do you use them much? Did this article help you understand them better? You can reply in comments if you like.