Colons and Semicolons

Colons and semicolons look a lot alike, but their functions are distinct. Let’s take it one punctuation mark at a time.

The colon

Colons usually introduce text. A colon might introduce a list or an explanation. In fact, here comes a colon to introduce this list of examples:

Karen needs to find the following items at the farmers market: cucumbers, onions, carrots and sugar snap peas.
Stefano had never felt better: He had a job that paid well and a boss who valued him. His house had survived the latest rain storm. And his vacation to Luxembourg was right around the corner.

Colons also can introduce a quotation, dialogue in a script or any number of things. The point is this: Colons often introduce things. We also use colons when indicating the time of day (for instance, 2:30 p.m.) and when writing Bible verses (for example, Ezekiel 25:17).

The semicolon

Semicolons have two main uses. First, a semicolon can be used to join two independent clauses that are closely related. If the term “independent clause” throws you off, don’t worry. An independent clause is simply a group of words that can stand alone as two separate complete sentences. Here are some examples:

Please go to Lenora’s office; she wants to speak to you.
Some people love to dance; I don’t.
Herman missed his bus again; he cursed his bad luck as he sheepishly walked to work.

Notice that, in each example, you could replace the semicolon with a period and have two complete sentences. That’s the test when using a semicolon this way: Each clause must be able to stand alone as its own complete sentence.

The second use of the semicolon occurs in a list. It acts as sort of a super comma. In a simple list, we separate items with commas:

I sent Christmas cards to Floyd, Mary, Carl and Harold.

But if one of the items contains a comma, then we have a complex list on our hands, and we use semicolons to separate the items:

I sent Christmas cards to Floyd, the barber with a lisp; Mary, the fourth grade teacher who loves bananas, coconuts and grapes; Carl; and Harold, my silly uncle.

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