The Good Coach :: The Art of Semicolons & Colons :: by Amanda Crabtree Weston
:: The Good Coach ::
The Art of Semicolons & Colons
by Amanda Crabtree Weston
Besides their all-important role as the eyes in emoticons, semicolons and colons are used to connect closely related ideas in a sentence. It can be confusing to know which one to use. Here’s the breakdown:
Semicolons are used in two particular instances. One function of semicolons is to separate two main clauses to form one sentence.
- Shelley desperately needed a haircut; however, she didn’t have any money.
In this instance, both sides of the semicolon contain complete sentences. You could exchange the semicolon for a period and a capital letter, and it would still be correct. A common mistake with semicolons occurs when a writer tries to use one main clause and one phrase that, for various reasons, isn’t complete.
- Incorrect: Tracy wanted to go on a walk with Doug on Saturday afternoon; whom she hadn’t seen in a long time. (The phrase “whom she hadn’t seen in a long time” is not a complete main clause that could stand on its own.)
- Correct: Tracy wanted to go on a walk with Doug on Saturday afternoon; they could walk around the lake and then go to dinner. (Both sides of the semicolon are complete main clauses and could stand on their own.)
The other function of semicolons is to separate items in a list when the individual items contain other punctuation, usually commas. The semicolon helps separate what could be an otherwise complicated list.
- Bill Johnson ran a marathon on December 21, 1998; February 1, 1999; and September 27, 2001.
Colons indicate that what follows will explain or expand on what comes before the colon. When using colons, the second clause interprets or sums up the first clause.
- Etsy shop owners have a limited customer base: Only those who have Internet access can purchase products.
When using semicolons, the second phrase doesn’t expand on the first phrase; rather, they are just two thoughts that are closely related. In order to use a colon, the second phrase must further interpret or explain the first phrase, like in the example above. When using two complete main clauses with colons, the second main clause should be capitalized like the beginning of a sentence.
Colons can also introduce lists, but only when the phrase preceding the colon is a complete sentence.
- Incorrect: Shauna’s purchases included: toothbrushes, orange juice, bread, and eggs. (The phrase “Shauna’s purchases included” is not a complete phrase. You would delete the colon to make this sentence correct.)
- Correct: Shauna brought the following in her suitcase: shoes, a skirt, a hat, a swimsuit, and sunscreen.
Colons can also introduce a word that renames the person preceding it. To evaluate whether a colon should be used in this instance, replace the colon with the word “namely.” If it can be used and still make sense, a colon is correct.
- Dexter knew exactly who had put the salt in his oatmeal: Sammy.
Amanda Crabtree Weston is a writer and editor living in Irvine, California. Previously the Senior Managing Editor at Stampington & Company and the Executive Consulting Editor for Where Women Create and Where Women Cook Magazines, she now works as the Senior Editor at Walter Foster Publishing. In her free time, she loves to go on adventures with her new husband, experiment in the kitchen, and run. She’d love to answer any of your English language questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.