Grammar tips: Colons and semicolons
Confusion about colons abounds. Here we provide some grammar tips that break down the difference between colons and semicolons so you can use them effectively in your writing.
In a nutshell, colons introduce, link or separate words and ideas. Semicolons create a stronger break than a comma, but a weaker break than a full stop.
In summary, think of the colon as a way of pointing the reader’s attention forward.
The most common use of a colon is to introduce a bulleted list.
The chapter covered:
- Causes of the problem
- Options to solve the problem
Some writers use a colon to introduce a list within a sentence, but you don’t need a colon if your sentence has a verb such as include or starts with for example or such as.
"It’s possible to write perfectly well without ever using a semicolon."
Correct: The ingredients: hazelnuts, bananas, flour, sugar and eggs.
Incorrect: The ingredients are: hazelnuts, bananas, flour, sugar and eggs.
Correct: The ingredients are hazelnuts, bananas, flour, sugar and eggs.
Quotes, dialogue and question-and-answer formats
The colon is used after a clause to introduce explanatory information, give examples, introduce a quote, and in dialogue and question-and-answer formats. A comma is often used instead of a colon in dialogue, particularly for short quotes.
The managing director said: ‘We’re all in this together. It is irrelevant who made the initial mistake.’
Colons and capital letters
Use lower case after a colon unless the following words are a quote, question, or proper name.
The question is: Who will be the winner?
Want more articles like this? Check out the business writing section.
Semicolons lessen the break between sentences that could be separated by a full stop and increase the break between sentences that could be connected by conjunctions such as and or but.
Connect and separate at the same time
Semicolons show a connection between two independent clauses and yet keep them separate at the same time. Oscar Wilde quotes are wonderful examples of such semicolon use.
- Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
- My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.
- To be poor and not complain is difficult; to be rich and not complain is easy.
Although few of us have Oscar Wilde’s wit, you can use a semicolon in business writing or essays to link two independent clauses (i.e. two sentences) that are not joined with a conjunction.
The meeting ended at 8pm; an agreement had been reached.
You shouldn’t use a comma to separate two independent clauses, but you could rewrite the above sentence with a conjunction, full stop or dash.
The meeting ended at 8pm and an agreement had been reached.
The meeting ended at 8pm. An agreement had been reached.
The meeting ended at 8pm – an agreement had been reached.
Before some transitional words
You don’t need semicolons before conjunctions such as but, and or so, but you do with adverbial conjuncts, such as however, therefore and moreover. You also need a comma after these words.
The company was behind in its repayments; however, it promised to pay before the end of the month.
The company was behind in its repayments; therefore, the liquidators moved in.
You can avoid the need for a semicolon by rewriting the sentences.
Although the company was behind in its repayments, it promised to pay before the end of the month.
The liquidators moved in because the company was behind in its repayments.
Separate items in a list
Use semicolons to separate units in a sentence when one or more of the units have commas.
The meeting included Jane Smith, economics adviser; Tom Brown, director; Sally Young, team leader; Jonathan Lee, employee representative; and Ann Parker, general manager.
Semicolons are also used in more traditional bulleted lists. In this type of list, each point has a semicolon at the end and the second-to-last point has a semicolon plus and.
Although they have a function, it’s possible to write perfectly well without ever using a semicolon. If you don’t like them, you’re in good company. US author Kurt Vonnegut said:
Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
Hopefully, you’re no longer confused by colons. Please share your questions and comments below; the use of semicolons is optional.