Colons and semicolons are two types of punctuation. Colons (:) are used in sentences to show that something is following, like a quotation, example, or list. Semicolons (;) are used to join two independent clauses, or two complete thoughts that could stand alone as complete sentences. As soon as we explore the examples of colons and semicolons below, you'll be that much closer to the title of Grammar Pro.
Let's begin with a study on colons. There are three primary purposes for this member of the punctuation family: lists, quotations, and independent clauses.
Colons can be used to set off a list. In this instance, think of colons as saying, "Here's what I mean." What's about to come after the colon is meant to further illustrate whatever was mentioned before the colon.
- There are two choices at this time: run away or fight.
- We knew who would win the game: the Eagles
- He wanted to see three cities in Italy: Rome, Florence, and Venice
- Here are three states that begin with M: Michigan, Mississippi, and Maine.
- This house has everything I need: two bedrooms, a backyard, and a garage.
- I have several favorite genres of movies: drama, science fiction, and mystery.
- I bought a lot of meat at the store: bacon, turkey, chicken, and tuna.
Colons can also be used to introduce a quotation of someone else's words. Typically, there will be some sort of introduction to those words.
- This was first said by Shakespeare: "To thine own self be true."
- The main character in the movie said: "Play hard. Work harder."
- She went to great lengths to emphasize this: "Kindness never fades."
- Mrs. Morris preaches this concept: "Second place is first loser."
- Diana Gabaldon says this prayer before writing: "Help me see what I need to see."
- The dog trainer gave us this instruction: "Love your dog and she will love you."
- Claire helped Jamie see his fate: "You're never going to win the Battle of Culloden."
And finally, colons can be used to separate two independent clauses. These are clauses that can stand alone as two complete thoughts.
There are two things to note in the examples below. First, each example contains two clauses. You shouldn't use this construction to connect more than two clauses. Second, you do not capitalize the first word in the second clause. Let's take a look!
- I just want you to remember: two can play at that game.
- You can come pick me up now: I am feeling much better.
- Never forget this point: think before you speak.
- Barry wanted to know why I didn't respond to his text: I hadn't received it.
- The town reminded me of my childhood vacations: both were on the beach.
- The world is a stage: play your role well.
- He cares for no one: he is the epitome of selfish.
You may also see colons come before a long list of items. Beyond that, they're also used after a formal introduction, as in "To Whom It May Concern:" For more information on all five rules, check out these 5 Rules of Colon Usage.
Like colons, semicolons shouldn't be used to connect more than two clauses and you do not capitalize the first word of the second clause. That means they're to be used when you're dealing with two complete thoughts that could stand alone as a sentence.
Why not use a period, then? Semicolons represent two closely linked independent clauses. If one or both of the clauses isn't complete, consider using a colon instead.
- Dad is going bald; his hair is getting thinner and thinner.
- You should stop eating so much food; you will have to go on a diet.
- You need new brakes; otherwise, you may not be able to stop in time.
- Star Trek was my favorite television show during the 1960s; in fact, it is my favorite television show of all time.
- I had a huge meal; however, I am already hungry again.
- She had self-defense training; consequently, she warded off the assailant.
- We had too many fumbles; we lost the game.
- I know you don't like broccoli; nevertheless, it is very good for you.
- Michelle drives a Jaguar; Sonya drives a Porsche.
- I have finished the main course; now I have to make dessert.
- She calls it the bathroom; I call it the loo.
- Mom wants the chores completed; moreover, she wants them done properly.
- I will be there as soon as I finish working; that is a promise I will definitely keep.
- She didn't see the other car coming; now her car has a huge dent.
- There is mounting evidence of global warming; of course, some people will never believe it.
- Let's go to Woof Gang Bakery; they sell the yummiest dog treats.
- I love Outlander; "Both Sides Now" is my favorite episode.
- She moved to Ireland; she preferred the tranquil setting over America.
- Let's go to the library; there are 15 different books I'd like to take out.
- This is a Remington typewriter; all the keys are intact.
This may leave you wondering if you should use a colon or a semicolon to connect two independent clauses. Here's a good rule of thumb. If the two clauses are merely related, not necessarily sequential in thought, use a semicolon. However, if the two related clauses follow a sequence of thought, use a colon.
There's also a smaller, yet important, role that semicolons play. That is, they stand in for commas in lists when commas alone would be confusing. Take a look at the examples below. Each item in the list contains commas itself, so using commas to separate the items would lead to ambiguity.
As such, the semicolon comes to the rescue to divide the lists, acting as a comma, but allowing for greater organization and clarity.
- As far as travel through the United States, I've visited Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco, California.
- Please pack my anthologies on short stories, poetry, and Shakespearean plays; my biographies on Jackie Kennedy, Charles Stuart, and Queen Elizabeth; and my historical romance novels by Nora Roberts, Jude Devereux, and Diana Gabaldon.
- You can order a sandwich with bacon, egg, and cheese; ham, egg, tomato, and cheese; or tomato, lettuce, and avocado.
Wasn't that exciting? Colons can do more than offset a long, bulleted list. They can also separate two clauses and introduce a valuable quote.
As for semicolons, you can now join the ranks of grammarians who use them properly. In a land of LOLs and BRBs, it's nice to know you're still a grammar aficionado. Proficiency will never go out of style.
Ready for another controversial punctuation mark? Review these eight times commas were important to see if your comma game is on point. Then, enjoy your status as a Grammar Pro!