This guide has been written to give a simple explanation of the use of the semi-colon (;) and colon (:). It explains how they can be used effectively and gives examples of their main uses.
Other Useful Guides: Using the apostrophe, Using the comma, Sentence structure.
The semi-colon represents a break within a sentence that is stronger than a comma, but less final than a full stop. It enables the writer to avoid over use of the comma and preserves the finality of the full stop. Semi-colons are used to separate items in a list and to link closely related sentences.
To separate items in a list
Use the semi-colon to separate items in a list when one or more items contain a comma. (These examples use a colon to introduce items in the list. An explanation of the use of the colon is given below.)
The speakers were: Dr Sally Meadows, Biology; Dr Fred Eliot, Animal Welfare; Ms Gerri Taylor, Sociology; and Prof. Julie Briggs, Chemistry.
The four venues will be: Middleton Hall, Manchester; Highton House, Liverpool; Marsden Hall, Leeds; and the Ashton Centre, Sheffield.
The main points in favour of the system were that it would save time for buying, accounts and on-site staff; it would be welcome by the reception staff; it would use fewer resources; and it would be compatible with earlier systems.
To link sentences which are closely related
Closely related sentences are often linked to emphasise their relationship and to vary the pace of the writing. For example:
I read the book in one evening. It was not very helpful.
One way to link these sentences is with a comma and a word such as and, or, but, nor, for, so, yet (called co-ordinating conjunctions).
I read the book in one evening, but it was not very helpful.
For variety in sentence structure, the semi-colon can be used to link closely related sentences instead of a co-ordinating conjunction and comma.
I read the book in one evening; it was not very helpful.
The semi-colon tells the reader that the second clause is closely linked to the first clause. Note how sentences joined in this way are similar in either theme or grammatical structure as shown in the example below.
Personal writing utilises the first person form; impersonal writing utilises the third person form.
He was nervous about giving the speech; he asked for water several times.
The deadline has come forward a week; everyone's help will be needed.
For use with otherwise, however, therefore…
The semi-colon can be used to link sentences which also use words such as otherwise, however, therefore, as connectors. These connectors (known as conjunctive adverbs) also include: moreover, nevertheless, thus, besides, accordingly, consequently, instead, hence.
I did not finish reading the text; instead, I watched the news.
(Notice that the connecting word instead is followed by a comma.)
The research is far from conclusive; nevertheless, it has some value in this case.
Dr Suptri argues that the research shows an increase in such occurrences; however, many experts would dispute this.
The colon acts as a pause which introduces related information. It indicates that the reader should look forward to information that follows on from the earlier statement. Some of the main ways a colon can be used are shown below.
To introduce a list
The colon can be used to introduce the items in a list.
Topics discussed will include: the structure of viruses, virus families and current concerns in virology.
Students joining the department undertake to: attend all lectures and tutorials, meet deadlines for written work and contribute to tutorials and seminars
To introduce an explanation, conclusion or amplification
The colon can also be used to introduce an explanation, conclusion or amplification of an earlier statement. The use of the colon separates and highlights the second statement, showing that it follows on from the first.
Tai chi is more than a form of physical exercise: it is meditation in movement.
After extensive research, the committee came to its conclusion: development could not take place without further funding.
The semi-colon and colon are often underused, yet their correct use can enhance the clarity of your writing. Beware of an over dependence on the comma and full stop, as this can make for ambiguous and repetitive sentence structure. Look in your writing for opportunities to use the semi-colon and colon in the ways described in this guide.
Uses of the Colon in English Writing
1. Introducing a List or an Appositive
Right or Wrong ?
The ingredients for the chocolate cake : flour, cocoa, butter, eggs, sugar, and vanilla extract.
Wrong ! The above sentence includes a list of cake ingredients introduced by a colon. A colon is indeed expected to introduce a list but the text preceding it must constitute an independent clause making up a sentence that can stand alone. As the preceding text is merely a noun phrase and not an independent clause answering to the double requirement of both subject and predicate, placing the colon here is wrong. A correct wording would therefore be:
We need several ingredients for the chocolate cake : flour, cocoa, butter, eggs, sugar, and vanilla extract.
If you want to know more, read the rules for colon usage below:
1. Use a colon after an independent clause that introduces and states the nature of the list that follows. The preceding sentence must include a phrase that serves as a generalizing term common to the list elements.
If you want to improve your cooking, you can do three things : read cookbooks, go to cooking classes, and cook as much as you can.
[preceding text is a stand alone sentence including an independent clause; three things is a generalizing term introducing the list items]
Your dishes will be judged according to four criteria : taste, culinary level, cooking skill, and presentation.
[preceding text is an independent clause; four criteria is a generalizing term introducing the listed items]
2. If the introductory independent clause ends in the expressions such as, including, like or consists of, do not use a colon.
The contestants prepared various kinds of ethnic dishes such as goulash, sauerkraut, empanadas, and Beef Bourguignon.
3. If the introductory independent clause ends in the expressions the following or as follows, you must use a colon.
The contestants prepared the following kinds of ethnic dishes : goulash, sauerkraut, empanadas, and Beef Bourguignon.
4. Put a colon after the introductory sentence when the list items are written vertically.
- The contestants prepared the following kinds of ethnic dishes :
- Beef Bourguignon
5. An appositive is a word or group of words that rename a noun or a pronoun. When an appositive is introduced by an independent clause, use a colon. When the introductory text is not an independent clause, use a comma.
Trained chefs are supposed to know how to prepare a proper Beef Bourguignon : prime meat cubes cooked in a full-bodied red wine, aromatic vegetables and fresh condiments.
[Beef Bourguignon is renamed in the appositive after the colon, detailing what it is made of]
2. Introducing the Text that Follows
1. When a second independent clause explains or summarizes a preceding independent clause, you can use a colon to separate them. In this way, the colon serves as a prompt alluding to the second clause as being an answer to an implied question raised in the first independent clause.
There is a vital issue every chef has to consider : Will the soufflé rise properly or dramatically collapse in front of the guests ?
[implied question: What is the vital issue? Answer: The rise and fall of the soufflé]
I will always remember the first time my husband cooked for me : It was a charming Friday Evening with a romantic candle light dinner he prepared.
[implied question: What was the first time like? Answer: A Friday evening candle light dinner]
2. It is sometimes possible to use a colon after an element which is not an independent clause, but merely a fragment. This is permissible only if it is logical for the fragment to stand on its own. Take care, however, that beginner writers should avoid this, as the ability to judge when such instances are possible develops with time and experience.
So far so good : The soufflé looks as if it is going to rise impressively. The guests are not going to get disappointed.
[implied question: What's good ? Answer: The soufflé will rise]
3. Strengthening Connections or Adding Examples
1. When one unit of information expands or derives from another, consider putting a colon in between them. This makes the relation between the two units more obvious as it alerts the reader to regard the latter unit as significant to the former. This rather advanced use of the colon enables connecting two sentences together in an elegant and more concise manner, as it saves up on some wording.
The new club president was elected by an extremely narrow margin. The count was 8,756 in favor and 8,250 against.
[The reader has to put in some thinking in order to realize the purpose of the given figures as related to the election results]
The new club president was elected by an extremely narrow margin : 8,756 in favor and 8,250 against.
[The colon makes the connection between election results and figures clearer]
2. You can consider using the colon to emphasize a point you want the reader to pay attention to. Instead of putting the related elements in separate sentences, juxtaposing them with a colon makes the relation - usually that of a contrast - more forceful.
A poor homeless child was sentenced to 6 months in prison. His crime was that he stole a few apples and some bread to feed his starving brothers and sisters.
[two separate sentences, no special emphasis]
A poor homeless 8-year-old child was sentenced to 6 months in prison. His crime : stealing a few apples and some bread to feed his starving brothers and sisters.
[The colon emphasizes the unjust contrast between the child's age and poor status and the punishment he received]
4. Other Uses of the Colon
1. Use a colon to separate between numbers in a ratio. In case these numbers are written as words, use the word to instead of a colon.
Chef Roberto defeated Chef Castellans 4 :1 (four to one) at the regional cook-offs.
2. Use a colon to separate the hours from the minutes and seconds.
The marathon winner passed the finishing line at 2:23:05.
-The British style is to use a period instead of a colon.
We arrived at the restaurant at 5.45 in the afternoon.
-In military settings, hours and minutes are written without colons with four digits on a 24-hour clock.
The morning shift starts its guard duty at 0730, and the evening shift at 1700.
3. Use a colon to separate a main title from a subtitle in books, articles etc.
- Casseroles for the Soul : A Comprehensive Guide to Family Cooking
- The Evolution of Cajun Cuisine : A Socio-Historical Perspective
4. Use a colon to separate Bible chapters and verses.
Look it up in Psalms 14: 4-8 and compare to Genesis 23, 23-24
5. Use a colon in memos.
- Date: December 30, 2007
- To: Elizabeth Masters-Johnson
- From: Herbert Excelsior-Smites
- Re: Culinary Institute - Student Programs
7. When an independent clause introduces a quotation or spoken text in a dialog, use a colon. If the introductory text is not an independent clause, use a comma instead.
Chef Roberto won the cooking contest and said excitedly : "I would like to thank my grandmother for teaching me everything I know. "
[introductory text is an independent clause]
He said ,"I would like to thank my grandmother for teaching me everything I know. "
[introductory text is not an independent clause which can stand alone]
8. Use a colon to separate lower level subheadings and figures or table identifiers from the text that follows them.
- The Colon : The colon has the following functions.
- Figure 14 : Diagram of colon usage statistics.
9. Use a colon to separate characters' names from their lines in scripts and screenplays.
Chef Roberto : "To cook or not to cook, that is the question. "
5. Colon Style Conventions
1. You may leave one or two spaces following a colon. Be consistent with any option you choose.
2. When a colon appears after quoted text, put it after the closing quotation mark.
3. Italicize the colon in case it appears immediately before an italicized text.
4. Start the text following the colon with either an upper-case or lower-case letter. Be consistent with any option you choose.