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!
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.
A colon can also be used to introduce a quote. Usually, the sentence will begin with a form of introduction before the quote.
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):
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
Did you answer correctly? Take a look at the correct answers and their explanations below:
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