Colon or Semicolon?

If you want to write English more effectively, then you should use the colon and semicolon. They look and sound similar, but they have very different uses. This website explains how to use them both, and how to know which one is suitable for the task in hand.

Simply put, the colon is used to provide a pause before introducing related information, while the semicolon is just a break in a sentence that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop.

A quick guide to using the colon

colon

A colon is made up of two dots, one placed above the other.

One common use of the colon is to introduce a list of items. For example:

To make the perfect jam sandwich you need three things: some bread, butter and strawberry jam.

Three items are listed in the sentence above. The first part of the sentence informs the reader that there will be three things; then the colon tells the reader “here are the three items”.

A colon can also be used to introduce a definition, statement or explanation of something. For example:

I know how I’m going to handle this: I’m going to hide!

Penguin (noun): an aquatic, flightless bird found almost exclusively in the Antarctic.

This site provides a more in-depth explanation of the colon and examples of using a colon.


A quick guide to using the semicolon

semicolon

A semicolon is made up of a comma with a dot above it.

The most common use of the semicolon is to join together two clauses that could each be separate sentences — creating a longer sentence. For example:

John calls it football; Sam calls it soccer.

This could be written as two sentences without the semicolon; however, the relationship between the two clauses is made more clear through the use of a semicolon.  The semicolon is often used to make the reader think about the relationship between the two clauses.

The semicolon is also commonly used to join two clauses, changing the sentence in combination with words like  ‘therefore’, ‘however’ or ‘on the other hand’. The examples below illustrate this approach:

however

Sian is Welsh; however, she lives in Canada.

in addition

He likes to play video games; in addition, he likes to read classical literature.

otherwise

You should stop drinking too much alcohol; otherwise, you’re going to get into trouble.

therefore

Hundreds of people came to the party; therefore, it was not possible to say hello to everyone individually.

See using the semicolon for more information. There are also more examples of using the semicolon.

Help us improve punctuation by sharing this guide!

24 Responses to Colon or Semicolon?

  1. Steve says:

    I have just spent a very enjoyable half hour reading and re-reading this wonderful website. I urge all future visitors to click on every link, drink it all in, and enjoy the magic: be spellbound by the lucid explanations; be enthralled by the examples.

    When can we have a sequel? I do hope the creators of this site will make us a guide to commas and hyphens. I’m going to stay here until they do.

    • Mike says:

      I found the destinction between the colon and it’s half brother interesting; however, you appear to be much more enraptured by it than I.

      • tim says:

        Mike, you of course meant “its half brother.” “It’s” is a contraction of “it is.”

        • chris7ian says:

          tim, you may have used too many quotation marks: only the statement regarding the half brother can be attributed to Mike.

          • Brad says:

            Tim’s grammar is fine.

          • marco says:

            “can be attributed” or may be attributed? Surely the whole statement can be attributed to Mike, even if incorrectly, but only the pertinent phrase may be attributed to him, I would have thought?

      • Gary says:

        You also mean ‘…much more enraptured by it than me.’

        • John says:

          Gary’s correction is wrong. The ‘than’ is not a preposition, although many people may treat it as such and so ‘me’ may acceptable in such a sentence to all except strict grammarians. However, Mike is not wrong, because The end of his sentence was an abbreviation for ‘… you appear to be much more enraptured by it than I am.’

          Mike’s usage will also be ambiguous less often, for the reason the following examples should make clear.

          ‘Jane visits George more often than I,” means that
          Jane visits George more often than I do.

          ‘Jane visits George more often than me,’ means that Jane visits George more often than she visits me.

          Strictly, Gary’s version means ‘… you appear to be much more enraptured by it than than by me,’ which is not what
          Mike meant!

          So take care to use the correct form when the context could otherwise lead to you being misunderstood!

      • Isabelle says:

        I love reading; however, I am a farmer.

  2. Kevin says:

    Thanks for this nice and short guide to colons and semicolons. Just how I like it.!

  3. Rob says:

    I hadn’t realize how many militant English ‘enthusiasts’ were out there; you guys love putting your fellow researcher in their ‘grammatical’ place.
    Tim: No worries brother; your quotations were just fine. To say: ‘It’s is a contraction of it is’ would be unclear; your original post was much more eloquent than my example. *Try single quotations when you aren’t directly quoting someone, it may look nicer; it’s up to you. (Example: I’m sure it was a mistake and that you already know what I’m about to write. For what it’s worth, ‘its’ is possessive; the apostrophe you added made the contraction for ‘it is.’)
    Speaking of ‘nicer,’ here’s a thought: Let he/she who has never accidentally used the contraction for ‘it is’ in the place of the possessive ‘its’ cast the first dictionary.
    Mike: Disregard ‘half-wits’ and nitpickers.
    To chris7ian: Tim (in his 2nd sentence) wasn’t attributing anything to Mike; he was doing exactly what you did to him: nitpicking grammar.
    Your claim, however, was completely invalid; you began with ‘may’ implying uncertainty. So, why even post it?

    • BillKN says:

      ‘Militant’…that’s a good word.
      Also, Rob, in the spirit of this discussion, you should know that the usage of “he/she” is outdated. Most people just use ‘they’ and it is grammatically correct.
      Check the videos at http://www.m-w.com for more information.

  4. Rob says:

    Rob, your so unschooled. You should have used the word ‘realized.’
    Oh wait, that’s what you meant; it was an honest mistake?

    I guess people posting on message boards don’t obsessively proofread their posts. And there I was patting myself on the back for my completely selfless, benevolent assistance. You guys know I was only trying to be the savior; not at all caught up my own pride.

  5. Rob says:

    yes, I meant You’re**
    By the way, I DO proofread my posts. Why? If we don’t know whether or not what we posted was what we intended to post, what good is it to anyone? Having said that, one serves only oneself by correcting another if one can see that it was unintentional and/or the point was clearly made, regardless of grammar.

  6. asdfghjkl says:

    yes, I meant You’re**
    By the way, I DO proofread my posts. Why? If we don’t know whether or not what we posted was what we intended to post, what good is it to anyone? Having said that, one serves only oneself by correcting another if one can see that it was unintentional and/or the point was clearly made, regardless of grammar. Rob, your so unschooled. You should have used the word ‘realized.’
    Oh wait, that’s what you meant; it was an honest mistake?

    I guess people posting on message boards don’t obsessively proofread their posts. And there I was patting myself on the back for my completely selfless, benevolent assistance. You guys know I was only trying to be the savior; not at all caught up my own pride.

  7. Matt says:

    That conversation about a conversation hurt my head. :(

  8. Bake Kis says:

    I think, AS a English leaner we do not come up by writing English effectively because of ignoring the punctuations that may sound like simple but helpful. If you know how to use them you will never run out of your idea during any dissertation as well any kind of of presentation. Trust me if u did the same you will witness the great improvement in your learning.

  9. ThatGuy says:

    What the hell is the world coming to… (Please don’t correct my grammar)

  10. Haha says:

    This just cracked me up! Thank you all ;)

  11. James. says:

    In my opinion, the use of grammar is only a means to an end to ensure that we may effectively communicate with one another when the use of body language is not available; beyond this scope, there is no right way to use grammar, as it’s purely subjective.

    • Richard says:

      The reason we have a grammar is so when we communicate with each other, we understand what is being said. If each person had their own interpretation nobody won’t understand nuttin’. So your first and second points are contradictory.

  12. Eddeevgrgr says:

    Lol, people are argueing in the grammer of other people.

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