Easy Rules for Semi Colons and Colon
Colons vs. Semicolons
Confused about when to use punctuation marks? You aren't alone. Few of my college English students understand how to use them correctly. Yet, mastering the art of these more sophisticated punctuation rules can make your writing look more professional, effective and readable. The basics:
- A semicolon is used between two complete sentences.
- A colon is used between a complete sentence and an example or list (not a full sentence).
Using a Semicolon Instead of a Period
How does this work?
sentence ; sentence
- Short Examples: Jennifer and I had lived together in the dorms our freshman year in college; thirty years later, we decided to take a road trip back to our University together.
- Jennifer and I had often gone to have coffee together after class; conversation and cappuccino seemed to go hand in hand as we bared our souls to one another late into the afternoon.
- Long Example: After visiting the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and eating lunch at Jack-in-the-Box, we investigated the interesting scientific specimens at the Mayborn Science and Nature Museum before heading back to our hotel; we had intended to bed early so we could be ready for the football game the next day, but instead we ended up staying up all night talking and laughing about all the adventures we had experienced together in the dorms as college freshman.
While it is technically correct to put a semicolon instead of a period in between any two sentences, if you start doing this your writing will not only look funny, it will drive your English Instructor crazy! So, here are some guidelines:
- Use instead of a period only between two sentences which are more meaningful when you link them together.
- Use on sentences which are of equal importance, and generally both about the same number of words.
- Use sparingly, only once or twice in an essay of 2-5 pages.
- Remember that using a semicolon draws attention to that sentence, so make sure that it is an important sentence in your essay, like the thesis or conclusion.
How often have you used semicolons in writing?
Frequently Used Transition Words List
in spite of
at that time
Use With Transition Word
Because semicolons are used to link sentences together, they work even better when you make the connection between the sentences clear by using a transition word. Here is the format, notice there is a comma after the transition:
sentence ; transition, sentence
Short Example: When in college, Jennifer and I talked to each other about our boyfriend troubles and dreams about the future; in contrast, now we spent more time talking about our kids, our jobs and our fears about growing old.
Long Example: Jennifer had been a doctor until the birth of her third child, but had given up her full load of patients when she realized that she knew more about their children than she did about her own; on the other hand, I had stayed at home taking care of my five children until they were grown and now was wistful about the career I had missed.
Semi colons vs. Colons Explained
Using a Colon Correctly
Colons are not used as often as commas and semicolons; however, they can be very important in business writing, or online writing where you use lots of bullets and lists. You will see lots of examples of when I use a colon in this Hub. When do you use a colon?
- To introduce an explanation.
- Right before a summary of your point.
- Before a list, or when you mean "as an example."
Here is the format:
main clause : explanation or list
Short Example: During our talk, I found that Jennifer had three dreams she hoped to fulfill before she turned fifty: to ride in a hot air balloon, to scuba dive, and to eat all 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins ice cream.
Laughing together, I had one thought about her dreams: she had better do the first two before she started on the last!
How to Use a Colon and Semicolons in Complicated Lists
The most complicated kind of sentence uses both colons and semicolons to make a long list of items easier to read. When might you need to do this? Consider this if your list is long and you have lots of descriptive words. If you have commas separating some of the description of the items in the list, you need to use semicolons in between the different items, instead of commas.
Short Example: Jennifer wanted to know about my two adopted daughters: how we had decided to adopt;what paperwork we had filled out; which agency we had used; what they were like when we got them in Hunan, China; and how our three birth children, Maggie, Brendan, and Sophie had responded when we brought our adopted children home.
Long Example: I told Jennifer about our first day in China when we adopted our daughter Mollie. The day was a whirlwind tour which included: climbing the Great Wall, which everyone reminded me can be seen from space; going to the Summer Palace, which was so foggy I don’t remember much of it; strolling Tiananmen Square, where I almost got in trouble for photographing a guard; and seeing the Pandas at the Beijing zoo, where I took pictures for my father who is involved with the Pandas at the San Diego zoo in California.
Semicolon or Comma?
Lots of times, my students use a semicolon when they really need a comma. A comma is used to separate parts of the same sentence so that the reader can understand it better. See the Rules for Using Commas. Here is an example of using commas correctly:
My friend, Danielle, who is not going to college,came by to ask me to lunch yesterday. Unfortunately, I couldn't go because I had class, dance practice, and five hours of work at the mall afterwards.
None of the places where there are commas in the above example could be substituted by colons. However, you could put a colon instead of the period after yesterday:
My friend, Danielle, who is not going to college,came by to ask me to lunch yesterday; unfortunately, I couldn't go because I had class, dance practice, and five hours of work at the mall afterwards.
- Notice that if you do so, you also need to give "unfortunately" a small "u."
- Generally, when you do combine sentences using a semicolon, you want to be sure it is an important sentence in your paper.
- Don't use more than one or two semicolons in any short 2-5 page paper. The semicolon emphasizes that sentence as important, so make sure it is!
Here is another example which does not use a transition word in between the two sentences. Notice how when you put the semicolon in the sentence that it emphasizes the connection of cause and effect:
- My room is a complete disaster. If I don't clean it up before this weekend, I'm afraid the roaches might do it for me!
- My room is a complete disaster; if I don't clean it up before this weekend, I'm afraid the roaches might do it for me!
Do you have a complicated sentence that you want to give as an example? Add it to the comments below or ask me a question.