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Colon or Semicolon? When to Use Them

In this post, we are addressing the age-old debate: colon or semicolon? Which form of punctuation is the correct one for the sentence you are writing? You might be wondering if your choice is purely a stylistic decision or if there are clear-cut rules. While we certainly understand the confusion when choosing between a colon and a semicolon, it is usually quite clear which one to use when you know the rules. In fact, it's rare that both the colon and semicolon are the correct punctuation options for a given sentence. It's almost always one or the other!

 

If you are not sure whether a colon (:) or semicolon (;) is the correct choice, we’re going to break it down for you. 

When to use a colon (:)

There are three main reasons to use a colon: lists, quotations and independent clauses. Take a look at the rules for each, as well as examples of a colon in action! 

 

Lists

A colon can be used to introduce a list, often in place of a phrase like “Here’s what I mean.” What follows a colon is intended to further explain what was mentioned before the colon. 

 

Example sentences:

  • Here are three cities I love to travel to: Paris, Madrid and London. 
  • I have several favourite genres of movies: comedy, romance and thriller. 
  • I bought a lot of junk food at the store: popcorn, crisps, chocolates, and sweets. 

 

Quotes

A colon can also be used to introduce a quote. Usually, the sentence will begin with a form of introduction before the quote. 

 

Example sentences: 

  • The character in the movie said: “Play hard. Work harder.”
  • Mr Harris preaches this concept: “Second place is the first loser.”
  • Our dog trainer gave us this instruction: “Love your dog and he will love you.”

 

Independent clauses

Lastly, a colon can be used to separate two independent clauses when the two clauses are directly related and you intend to emphasise the second clause. Please note that you should never use a colon with more than two clauses and, if you’re writing in British English, you should not capitalise the first word in the second clause, unless it’s a proper noun. 

 

Example sentences (these will be appropriate for British English): 

  • I want you to remember: two can play at that game. 
  • Jordan wanted to know why I hadn’t replied to his text: I hadn’t received it. 
  • Don’t forget this point: think before you speak. 

 

When not to use a colon

Before moving on to the semicolon, it’s important to note the rules for when it’s not appropriate to use a colon. A colon should never interrupt an otherwise complete sentence. 

 

For example:

  • Incorrect: The ingredients included: salt, butter, flour, and rosemary. 
  • Correct: The ingredients included salt, butter, flour, and rosemary. 
  • Correct: The ingredients included the following: salt, butter, flour, and rosemary. 

 

A quick test is to remove the colon and ask if the sentence still makes sense. If the answer is yes, the colon can go. In the final example above, removing the colon would cause confusion, so we need to keep it. 

 

When to use a semicolon (;)

 

One of the main reasons that semicolons are often misused is that their two primary purposes are to connect two independent clauses and to divide lists. This sounds very similar to the ways a colon is used in a sentence and this can confuse people. To bring more clarity, take a look at the rules for each use of a semicolon and read the example sentences to see the semicolon in action!

 

Independent clauses

Just like a colon, a semicolon can be used to link together two independent clauses, creating a detailed sentence. In this instance, a semicolon is used in place of a conjunction (words like because). Unlike the similar use of a colon, the semicolon is used to link two independent clauses that are loosely related. 

 

Example sentences:

  • My favourite meal is spaghetti bolognese; it reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking. 
  • John is going bald; his hair is getting thinner and thinner. 
  • I have finished cooking the main course; now it’s time to make the dessert. 

 

Lists

Semicolons play a role in lists, where a comma alone would be confusing. This usually occurs when the sentence already includes commas, so the semicolon acts as a comma but allows for better organisation and clarity. 

 

Example sentences:

  • When road-tripping through the United States, I visited Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco, California. 
  • The sandwich filling options include chicken, mayonnaise and bacon; bacon, egg and cheese; or tomato, lettuce and avocado. 
  • You need to pack a sleeping bag, pillow and pyjamas for the overnight stay; a water bottle, waterproof jacket and walking boots for the afternoon hike; and a swimming kit for the river activities. 

Colon or semicolon quiz

Now let’s test our knowledge to see how much we’ve learnt. In the sentences below, determine whether a colon or semicolon should be used. To make this a little trickier, some sentences don’t need either!

 

  1. Lauren moved back to South Africa, she couldn’t stand the rainy British weather. 
  2. Please bring sun cream, a towel and a water bottle to the pool party. 
  3. There’s one ingredient I really can’t stand, coriander. 
  4. My heart sank, Anna said she’d be unable to make it. 

 

Answer key

Did you answer correctly? Take a look at the correct answers and their explanations below:

  1. Lauren moved back to South Africa: she couldn’t stand the rainy British weather. (The colon connects two clauses)
  2. Please bring sun cream, a towel and a water bottle to the pool party. (No colon or semicolon needed)
  3. There’s one ingredient I really can’t stand: coriander. (The colon emphasises coriander)
  4. My heart sank; Anna said she’d be unable to make it. (The semicolon links these two independent clauses which are loosely related)

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