Grappling with Grammar
Colon and Semi-Colon

I was originally going to do this post on the colon, semi-colon, and dash; however, while doing my research I realized I was forgetting about the hyphen, which is often confused with the dash. Therefore, instead of doing one massive post on all four, I’ve broken it down into two manageable parts: Part one is the colon and semi-colon, and part two is the hyphen and the dash.

The colon is most commonly used to introduce a list, sentence, clause, or word.

You will have to buy several ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, milk, and butter.

When the colon is used to introduce a complete sentence, the first word of that sentence should be capitalized.

My husband had a great idea: He is going to serve me breakfast in bed on the weekends.

When a colon is used to introduce a word, phrase, or clause that is not a complete sentence, the first word following the colon should not be capitalized.

The movie the Ten Commandments can be boiled down to one key word: faith.

You can also use a colon to introduce an explanation or a definition of something.

I'll tell you what I'm going to do: I'm going to quit!
Elephant (noun): a large grey mammal found in Africa and India.

Use colons to introduce quotations that are longer than one sentence and to end paragraphs that introduce quotations in the next paragraph.

The judge eyed the defendant and told him in words dripping with distain: “Your disgusting conduct in my courtroom has mocked everything that is justice. Please accept our jail hospitality for the next 45 days.”

Here is the text of the president’s speech:
“Good evening, my fellow Americans . . . .”

Other uses of the colon include:

To show the text of questions and answers.

Q: What happened next?
A: Then he got down on one knee and proposed.

After the salutation of a business letter.

Dear Mr. Jones:
Dear Board Member:

In the heading of a business memo.


Between the hour and the minutes.

6:30 p.m.
5:00 a.m.

Between the chapter and the verse in the Bible, in citations for some literary works, and between the volume and the number of some publications.

Genesis 1:18-20
Part 3:121
Vol. 2:34

As part of a title.

Grey Power: A Practical Survival Handbook for Senior Citizens.

In a bibliography between the place of publication and the name of the publisher.

Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1966.


The semi-colon is half comma, half period. It indicates more than a pause; it is a break but not a stop. When you are using a semi-colon to hold two sentences together, it acts as slightly less powerful version of a period. That is, the semi-colon makes the reader pause in her reading of the sentence, but does not bring her to a full stop the way a period does.

Using a semi-colon is one way of making your writing "flow" more elegantly and smoothly, as it eliminates the choppy effect produced by a series of short, simple sentences.

Use a semi-colon to join independent clauses not connected by a coordinating conjunction. In other words, two clauses that could be sentences.

The fire roared through the abandoned warehouse; its rapid progress was aided by several piles of gasoline-soaked rags.

If those two clauses had been connected with the coordinating conjunction and, a comma would have sufficed.

. . . warehouse, and its rapid . . .

Semi-colons are also needed when more than two independent clauses are linked in a series—even when the last part of the series is connected by a coordinating conjunction.

We must provide adequate funding for our schools; we cannot abandon our commitment to higher education; and we will create a new income tax measure to fund our programs.

Use a semi-colon to set off parts of a series or list that also includes commas.

Involved in the collision this morning were Bob Smith, 36, of Toronto; his wife, Joan Smith, 31; their children, John, 14; Brenda, 12; and Billy, 7.

When you punctuate a clause internally with commas, you can’t use a comma to separate that clause from another. A semi-colon is needed to create a more abrupt stop.

By the end of the sessions, the participants will have learned how to handle excessive amounts of paperwork, to work under pressure, and to juggle deadlines; and, if they complete all requirements, they will have a valuable addition to their resumes.

Finally, semi-colons must be used before conjunctive adverbs (e.g., therefore , however) joining independent clauses.

I got good marks on all my exams; therefore, I will graduate with high honours.

Think you’ve got the hang of it now? Test your knowledge by taking a Quiz.


Anonymous said...

I read your post, thought I had a good grasp of the concepts, took the quiz and got 5 out of 11. SIGH!!!

I think that some of us just don't get the finer rules of punctuation. I really try but it seems to bite me in the fanny every time. I will keep reading your posts and hopefully someday it will all sink in, maybe!


C R Ward said...

I try to avoid the colon - I still get confused with it. But I do love the semi-colon - it's saved me from many a coma-splice. :-)