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What’s the Point of the Colon & Semicolon?

More specifically, what’s the 'point-on-point' and the 'point-on-comma'?

A colon and a semicolon

I still make mistakes with colons and semicolons. All I took with me from childhood lessons was that the colon required a pause nearly as long as a full stop. But not quite.

For the semicolon, I recalled the pause should be shorter than for the colon. I’m not sure how much shorter. And I don’t remember whether it needed to be shorter or longer than for the comma.

My choice of punctuation was based on differences that amounted to fractions of seconds. This has led me to blindly misuse both.

To illustrate, try apologising to your partner with a note saying, ‘I’m sorry I love you,’ instead of ‘I’m sorry; I love you.’

Or see what happens when your first line in a lecture on equality begins ‘a woman without her man is nothing’, rather than ‘a woman: without her, man is nothing.’

Surely, there has got to be more to differentiate these than a half-a-second breath. Put aside the fraction of difference in pause length. Assume your reader doesn’t need to be reminded to breathe.

What purpose does the colon or semicolon fulfil?

The colon

Our double full-stopped friend has more uses in English than its ‘becommaed’ – made-up word – semicolon sibling. But the latter often incorrectly replaces the former.

A colon is to words what the equals sign is to numbers. They look similar. The colon is an equals sign that has lost too much weight. An equals sign with an eating disorder perhaps.

Like the mathematics sign, what sits on one side of a colon must equal what sits on the other side.

The colon does this in several ways.

The colon introduces lists

On the left of your colon, you introduce the subject of the list. After the colon, you give the contents of that list. So the list subject EQUALS the items you then list:

The Words on Words blog covers the most irksome areas of grammar: apostrophes, pronouns, and plurals.

The colon here does the same job as ‘such as’ or ‘like’:

The Words on Words blog covers the most irksome areas of grammar such as apostrophes, pronouns, and plurals.

There isn’t a right way or wrong way of doing this; it’s often a question of personal taste. But note that the colon should never be used in conjunction with a conjunction! It’s one or the other. If you use both, you are effectively repeating yourself.

The colon elaborates or defines

Before the colon, you have a statement that would (usually) work as a standalone sentence. The colon allows you to add further definition, explanation, or specifics to that initial statement. Often the colon could be replaced by a full-stop.

Consider the following two statements:

I wanted to write this blog on the colon. It’s a confusing little thing.

If I want to make the link clearer, I could replace the full-stop with a subordinating conjunction like although, since, or because:

I wanted to write this blog on the colon because it’s a confusing little thing.

But I could also use a colon:

I wanted to write this blog on the colon: a confusing little thing.

The colon emphasises

Here the colon doesn’t introduce multiple elements in a list. And it doesn’t elaborate. But it still does the job of the equals sign. A kind of halfway house:

I am writing this blog on a confusing little punctuation mark: the colon.

As you can see, this is not dissimilar to the previous example of colon use. It merely flips the elaboration to lead with it, making ‘the colon’ clearly the focus of the sentence.

The colon denotes speech

On the left, you introduce the quote that, on the right, you quote. The colon is immediately followed by quotation marks (and a space):

As I said to the gang of grammarians: “I’m writing this blog, and you can be damned.”

The common calamities of the colon

As well as being incorrectly replaced by a semicolon, these are the common problems of the colon you should remember:

  1. In British English we do not capitalise the word that comes immediately after the colon. (Unless it is a proper noun of course. We don’t usurp one rule by using another.) In US English, capitals are more often seen after the colon.

  2. A colon should not be partnered with a dash or hyphen – ‘:-‘ – before introducing a list. Even if it is a lengthy list, there is never a need to do this.

  3. There is no space before the colon. A single space follows it.

The semicolon

Containing both a full-stop and a comma, you would be forgiven for thinking the semicolon does a bit of both jobs. Well it kinda does. But so does a colon. And a colon does it more often.

The semicolon combines

As we’ve explained, the colon introduces information that elaborates on the preceding thought.

A semicolon draws together two thoughts – often both complete sentences – about the same subject. But they are separate thoughts.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

All these versions of Dickens’ opening are valid. The difference comes from the directness of correlation. Each gives a slightly different sense of the closeness of the two thoughts.

Talking about a different ‘sense’ may seem slightly pretentious. As you could already use a full-stop or ‘and’ for this, the semicolon may seem unnecessary. Arguably, it is.

Some would say this use of the semicolon is a sign of writers focussing too much on their writing. Writers who have forgotten they are writing for people to read.

Usage of the semicolon has decreased by about 25% over the last 30 years. In an age of soundbites, there seems little point in a punctuation mark that only exists to help us extend sentence length. When additional information is required, we are more likely to use the hyphen (–) in its place.

The semicolon clarifies lists

The semicolon has another use that is helpful; though, to some, it just looks weird.

When writing a list where each component part is lengthy, a semicolon helps differentiate between other commas:

There are many places in the UK I have lived: East Dereham, Norfolk, Northwich, Cheshire, Southport, Merseyside and Greenwich, Southeast London.

This cornucopia of commas gives you a confused reading. It reads like I have lived in eight places. I have lived in four.

We can use the semicolon to differentiate between each item that already contains a comma. In this way, the semicolon is like the comma’s big brother:

There are many places in the UK I have lived: East Dereham, Norfolk; Northwich, Cheshire; Southport, Merseyside; and Greenwich, Southeast London.

To correct colons and semicolons, forget timings

Defining punctuation by pause length is a quick way to set the basic foundations of usage. But when you want to be sure whether to use the colon or the semicolon, it’s best to forget it.

If you remember nothing else, and don’t mind taking a gamble, stick to the colon. You’re more likely to be right. If you’re wrong, it is less likely to have a detrimental impact on your intended meaning.

And if you’re leaning towards the semicolon, but don’t have the courage of your convictions to use it, get with the fashion. Use a hyphen instead.


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