When to use a semicolon or colon in your writing
Semicolons and colons together with the comma, are three punctuation marks used within sentences to bring varying levels of emphasis or to signify degrees of correctness. This post clarifies when to use a semicolon or colon in your writing and demonstrates how they can add variety to your content and make it more engaging.
The break provided by a semicolon is stronger than that provided by a comma but weaker than that created by a full stop.
The semicolon therefore can be used to link two clauses that could be regarded as separate sentences but that have a closer logical link than such separation would signify.
A semicolon can be used between two parts of a sentence that are closely linked in meaning, provided there is at least a full sentence that makes sense by itself on either side of the semicolon:
- We expect council approval next week; the work can then start immediately
In the above example, the statements could be joined by and or made into two short sentences but neither option would produce the same emphasis or rhythm.
Sometimes the second statement is introduced by a connective expression, such as however, alternatively, therefore, etc, to emphasise the connection between the two statements. In which case, use a semicolon, not a comma:
- Snow is forecast; however, there are no clouds in the sky
- Snow is forecast, however there are no clouds in the sky
If one or more items in a series or list within a sentence contains internal commas, use a semicolon to separate the items:
- Players came from Manchester, England; Berlin, Germany; and Melbourne, Australia
- The study revealed surprising results: children, 22 percent; adolescents, 28 percent; and adults, 50 percent.
Another important use for the semicolon is in separating a series of phrases or clauses that also contain commas. Although the semicolon is not a popular punctuation mark, it is very useful and when used properly, can bring elegance and variety to your writing.
In general, the colon is a marker of relationship and sequence. It can be used after a clause (a sentence that makes sense on its own) to introduce additional explanatory information, or it can introduce indented material such as a dot-point series, examples, block quotations and questions.
Other useful functions of the colon are to link a title with its subtitle and to introduce formal statements, transcripts and dialogue.
Amplifying, summarising and contrasting…
A colon is used to introduce a word, phrase or clause that amplifies, summarises or contrasts with what precedes it:
- She was angry: the cake had not arrived yet and the party was about to start
- I had two tickets: not enough to take all my friends
- There is only word for it: disgraceful
Series of items
Sometimes explanatory matter is in the form of a series of items. A colon should be used when these items are placed together to the introductory clause or are preceded by the following or as follows:
- Three portfolios were represented: health, finance and defence
- The map shows the following information: towns and villages, roads and railways
In contrast, when the series of items flows naturally on as part of the sentence, a colon is not needed:
- A number of children are at risk, including those that do not eat a diet high in calcium
- The library holds a wide range of books dealing with mental health issues covering subjects such as child behaviour problems, adolescent mental health and dementia in the aged
Block quotations, ie quotations that are set apart from the text, are often introduced by a colon:-
The media release began:
In a first for Australian tennis, the government has increased funding to clubs to improve junior player development. This means that more junior players….
A colon is used to introduce a direct question when the question amplifies or modifies the introductory word or phrase:
- The question is this: who will take ownership of the problem?
A capital letter is needed after the colon if two or more complete questions follow:
- I ask you: How long can this go on? Do you think it’s fair for them to continue to suffer?
However, when the questions are merely sentence fragments, lower case can be used:
- What is the minimum level accepted: fluency in Chinese? knowledge of environmental issues? a degree in Geography?
Formal statements, speeches, transcripts and dialogue
A colon can be used as a stronger alternative to a comma when introducing formal statements and speeches:
- The teacher began: “Parents, teachers and pupils…
A comma is sufficient if the introduction is less formal:
- The Prime Minister rose and announced, ‘Cabinet will make its decision tomorrow’
It is also common to use a colon after speakers’ names in a transcript and in dialogue:
- MEMBER FOR BURWOOD: Thank you, Madam Speaker…
Subtitles and subheadings
A colon is used to introduce the subtitles of books, articles in periodicals, and so on:
- The Environmental Society: exploring opportunities for climate change
- ‘Bank robbery: man arrested’
If you have any questions on when to use a semicolon or colon in your writing, please send them via the Contact Us page or give Ruth a call on 0411 889283. Happy writing!