- Understand when to use semicolons.
- Understand when to use colons.
- Recognize when semicolons and colons are used incorrectly.
By the time you were taught how to use semicolons and colons in eighth grade or so, you were likely already set in your ways regarding punctuation. Here’s the good news: it isn’t too late to add these marks to your commonly used list and to appreciate how much they can do for your writing.
The School of Life explains how to use semicolons and colons, explaining how semicolons show how items are related and not dependent, while colons are logical and unpack things (“Colons and Semicolons”
A semicolon is a punctuation mark that signals a pause that is stronger than a comma but weaker than a period. Appropriately, a semicolon (;) looks like a period on top of a comma. The standard uses for semicolons are to separate two independent clauses instead of using coordinating conjunctions, to separate two independent clauses along with a conjunctive adverb, or to clarify a series that includes other punctuation.
Compound Sentences without Coordinating Conjunctions or with Conjunctive Adverbs
Compound sentences with conjunctive adverbs or without coordinating conjunctions require a semicolon.
Compound sentence with a coordinating conjunction: Scout and Jem do not know much about Boo Radley, but they are afraid of him.
Compound sentence without a coordinating conjunction: Scout and Jem do not know much about Boo Radley; they are afraid of him.
Compound sentence with a conjunctive adverb: Scout and Jem do not know much about Boo Radley; nevertheless, they are afraid of him.
Items in a Series with Commas
Typically, commas separate items in a series. Sometimes multiple-word series items include commas. In these cases, the commas within the items would be easily confused with the commas that separate the items. To avoid this confusion, you should use semicolons between these series items. You should not use semicolons to separate items in a series when the items do not include commas.
Sentence with series that results in comma confusion: In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends justice, the underprivileged, and his children, teaches his kids values, and stands up to the people of the town.
Sentence rewritten using semicolons to avoid comma confusion: In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends justice, the underprivileged, and his children; teaches his kids values; and stands up to the people of the town.
A colon is used to separate parts or to signal that some related information or words are coming.
Colons are used to introduce a variety of text components, including explanations and examples.
- To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars: Best Actor; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White; and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
- There is a good reason no one has ever visited Maycomb, Alabama: it is a fictitious city.
Independent Clauses Where One Restates or Supports the Other
Most sets of independent clauses require a comma and a conjunction or a semicolon between them. An exception is when the second clause clearly restates or supports the first clause.
The movie To Kill a Mockingbird was well received in Hollywood: it was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
The following video from Khan Academy describes how colons can be used to link parts of sentences:
Salutations and Isolated Elements
A variety of elements call for colons to separate the details.
- Time: 5:30 p.m.
- Professional/Business Letter or email openings: Dear Ms. Moore:
- Ratios: 4:7
- Chapters and verses: 7:2–3
- Titles: Spark Notes: To Kill a Mockingbird
- Bibliographies: New York: Random House
- Arrangements of categories and examples (such as this list)
When the lead-in to a quotation is a complete sentence, you can use a colon between the lead-in and the quotation.
Scout spoke with her usual frankness and wisdom beyond her years: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
The following video from Khan Academy explains more uses of the colon: