Colons and Semicolons: Not Just for Emojis
Colons and semicolons are types of punctuation many writers avoid. I believe this is because they don’t understand their purpose, so now these marks have become tools used solely for creating smiley faces. Colons and semicolons are forms of punctuation that signal connections between ideas within a sentence. They are often replaced with periods, but this removes the extra layer of cohesion.
Rules for Using Colons
Colons are often used in academic and technical settings because they introduce a restatement, an explanation, a list/series, or some other amplification of the text. The sentence usually begins with an independent clause (a standalone, complete sentence) then employs the colon before the second clause. The second part of the sentence is often a list or phrase. In creative writing, colons can accent important points or provide another option for organizing a sentence. Here are some examples:
Restatement – At the end of it all, he was alone: Not even a breath stirred the air of his house.
Note how the clauses before and after the colon could be individual, complete sentences. This means the phrase after the colon should also start with a capital letter.
Explanation – Vanessa and Charlie had always had only one wish: children.
List/Series – The colors of the New Mexico sunset dazzled the visitors: gold, russet, crimson, rose, coral.
Other common uses of colons include separating a title and a subtitle and hours and minutes.
Title/Subtitle – Colons and Semicolons: Not Just for Emojis
Time – 11:49 a.m.
I use colons in my own writing. However, I don’t see other writers outside of academia using them very often. Colons can be a powerful tool: They accent points like in the explanation example, create rhythm, and give writers another option for controlling the release of information. Colons show how ideas are related. Sure, the sentences could be broken apart or rearranged to avoid using the punctuation mark, but some of the impact would be lost.
Rules for Using Semicolons
Semicolons have two major uses: separating lists and connecting coordinate clauses. Lists whose individual components contain commas would be confusing if commas were also used to separate the items of the list. Where a comma would normally go, a semicolon is used instead to clearly separate the list’s components. When semicolons connect coordinate clauses, they tell a reader that even though the two clauses could be individual sentences, the thoughts contained within the sentences are not quite separate. A period would be too harsh of a stop between the sentences. If a conjunctive adverb such as “however,” “thus,” and "therefore" is used between the clauses, a semicolon is still required. Both of these are best explained through examples:
Lists – The finalists came from the Lion’s Club, Durango, Colorado; the Kiwnis Club, Aztec, New Mexico; and the Dineh Chapter, Tuba City, Arizona.
Note how commas are already being used in between the club, city, and state. This is why semicolons are used instead of commas to separate the finalists.
Coordinate Clauses – He not only worries he will never return to the castle in the mist; he worries he won’t even remember the palace exists.
Note that unlike with the colon, the phrase after the semicolon is not capitalized.
Coordinate Clauses – The sky roiled with charcoal clouds and the smell of soil; therefore I postponed my run.
I find the list use of semicolons easier to understand; if the items in my list contain commas, I use semicolons for the list. Using semicolons to separate clauses that could be individual sentences is more nuanced. When does a sentence need a conjunction such as “and,” “but,” or “yet,” which are preceded only by commas? When do the thoughts need to be separated by a period? This is something only the author can really know.
I once had a patient who was an elementary school teacher. She told me the Common Core tests gave higher scores to students who used semicolons than to those who used periods. Naturally, she encouraged her students to use as many semicolons as possible on the tests. Imagining papers filled with the punctuation mark makes me smile and wonder if the semicolon will be used more frequently in future generations.
Advice from an Editor
The general population avoids using colons and semicolons for the same reasons many authors do, so as an editor, I recommend authors use them sparingly. These punctuation marks tend to behave like exclamation marks; if used too often, they lose their effectiveness and clutter the page. However, I strongly advise to experiment with colons and semicolons. Try them out. See how they work in a specific situation. The sentence can always be changed if they aren’t the right punctuation mark for the context.
Remember, colons introduce a restatement, explanation, list/series, or other amplification of the text, while semicolons connect related clauses and separate items in a list that already contains commas. Of course, they make good smiley face eyes, too.
Do you have any questions about colons and semicolons? Leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them. To get a free list of 13 Writing Craft Books Every Writer Should Explore subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.