I’ve really been enjoying writing these grammar-based blogs because they not only help you, dear readers, but they also help me to refresh my memory and expand my knowledge on these topics. So, I sincerely hope you are enjoying them as much as I am!
Today’s topic is the proper use of colons and semicolons. Unfortunately, many people find themselves getting the two types of punctuations confused. This is not all that surprising because they look very similar and, typically, occupy the same key on a keyboard.
The semicolon and colon are located next to the “L” key on the traditional qwerty style keyboard.
The semicolon consists of a dot over top of a comma. It looks like this—> ;
The colon consists of two dots in a column. It looks like this—> :
The semicolon has two uses:
1. To connect two different independent clauses which are related.
An independent clause is a standalone sentence which has all the grammatical features needed to be a sentence. This specifically means the phrase must contain a noun (subject) and verb (action or predicate) and express a complete thought.
If one of your two clauses are dependent (not expressing a complete sentence) then it cannot be attached with a semicolon.
Semicolons often replace conjunctions, but can be used alongside conjunctions also. Typically, a semicolon is used when two sentences are related to each other but to connect them with a conjunction would cause the sentence to be confusing or not make sense altogether.
Sarah ate a big lunch; however, she was still hungry an hour later.
Anne wrote a book; the book did really well in her hometown.
Ted bought onions; I don’t like onions.
2. To separate items on a list which already contain commas.
Traditionally, commas are used to separate items on a list but, in instances in which the individual items already contain a comma, semicolons are used.
Our readers are from many locations: Los Angles, California; New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; and Detroit, Michigan.
My favorite sandwiches are the following: peanut butter, banana, and chocolate; bacon, lettuce, and tomato; and ham, tomato, and mustard on rye.
This is a semicolon in braille!
The colon has three main uses:
1. After an independent clause in situations in which what follows the colon describes or elucidates what comes before it.
If the phrase that you wish to write is a description of the independent clause you just wrote, a colon may be appropriate. I often consider the part of a sentence that occurs after a colon to be another way to write what is in front of the colon (whether this is a more specific or vague way of expressing it). This is also holds true for lists, quotations, and examples.
To make a PB&J sandwich you need three ingredients: peanut butter, jam, and bread.
In this example, the items “peanut butter,” “jam,” and “bread” describe the “three ingredients” which precedes them.
He kept repeating: “bright red eyes.”
In this example, the “bright red eyes” quotation describes what it was that the person kept repeating.
2. In titles to announce a subtitle to follow.
You can and should put a colon between a title and a subtitle, especially on a formal paper.
The title of my paper is “Mice in Literature: From Cinderella to Flowers for Algernon”.
3. In established convention.
There are some places where it is just convention to use a colon. Some of these places are time, ratios, bible verses, greetings in formal letters, and citation locations.
It is 3:30 pm.
The ratio of pears to apples is 3:4.
Please open your bible to Joshua 1:9 and read the verse aloud.
He started his letter with “To whom it may concern:”.
The inside page of the book proclaimed—”New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.”
These are all examples of formal writing conventions featuring a colon.
Colons can be very confusing and I often find myself second guessing myself when using them. So, lastly, I leave you with a helpful list of common colon mistakes which I found from The Writing Center’s website.
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Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Manager at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.