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When to Use a Semicolon vs. Colons: Not So Hard, Really

Punctuation marks are like road signs for readers. They guide the eye, signaling whether one needs to stop (a period), pause (a comma), watch for a shift in focus (an em-dash), notice a connection (hyphens and en-dashes), and more. For whatever reason, people seem to have more trouble with the semicolon and colons than the… [Read More]

When to use a semicolon vs colons by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

Punctuation marks are like road signs for readers. They guide the eye, signaling whether one needs to stop (a period), pause (a comma), watch for a shift in focus (an em-dash), notice a connection (hyphens and en-dashes), and more. For whatever reason, people seem to have more trouble with the semicolon and colons than the others. Not necessarily with where to place them (that’s a comma problem, always, and it’s job security for us copyeditors), but when to use them at all. Today, I’m hoping to shed light on the mysteries of these two marks.

First, the Semicolon

I’ve heard it said (and perhaps said it myself, once or twice) that semicolons are commas on steroids. They’re stronger, more powerful marks, and they have specific uses.

They’re also (apparently) the most despised AND beloved punctuation mark, simultaneously. I have a “Semicolon Appreciation Society” sticker, from Wordnik, on my laptop; now you know which way I lean. (And yes, I used one there as an object lesson. Those two sentences, or independent clauses, are closely related. I’m strengthening that by using a semicolon. More on that in a bit.)When to use a semicolon vs colons by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

Vonnegut’s advice about them—which I won’t repeat verbatim here because, personally, I think it’s unenlightened and offensive—is not to use them. If you want to know what he said, knock yourself out with a basic Google search. And here’s where I’ll say I do like Vonnegut’s writing. I just find his take on semicolons to be something I shan’t repeat in public (but you should probably look it up, if only to see how vehement folks can get about them).

Instead, let’s talk about what they’re for and how they’re used.

Semicolons have three uses: to connect two closely related independent clauses, to connect two independent clauses when the second starts with a conjunctive (joining) adverb, and to separate items in a list when one or more of them contains its own punctuation. I haven’t used them in this list because none of the items are internally punctuated.

Connecting two closely related independent clauses:

Don’t touch that; it’s so cold you’ll get frostbite.

Connecting two independent clauses, the second of which begins with a conjunctive adverb:

I’m not saying their dog is stupid; however, he’s run into the glass patio door more than once, chasing his reflection.When to use a semicolon vs colons by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

Separating items in a list when one or more contains its own punctuation:

Among my favorite movies are: O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Murder on the Orient Express (1974); and The Birdcage.

Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) has an excellent explanation of commas versus semicolons.

The Ice Cream Truck & The Girl in the Orange Skirt

Let’s investigate how a semicolon indicates connection of thought. Here are two sentences (independent clauses).

An ice cream truck pulled up in front of the rec center across the street. A girl in an orange skirt, the color of sherbet, was first in line.When to use a semicolon vs colons by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

There’s nothing particularly special about either of those, is there? It’s a simple description: there’s a truck, and there’s a girl.

An ice cream truck pulled up in front of the rec center across the street, and a girl in an orange skirt, the color of sherbet, was first in line.

Now there’s a conjunction (a joining word), “and,” between the sentences with a comma before it (replacing the period we had in the first example). There’s still nothing notable, though. We’ve got the truck and the girl, same as before.

An ice cream truck pulled up in front of the rec center across the street; a girl in an orange skirt, the color of sherbet, was first in line.

Aha! Now we have something different going on, syntactically. Why are the sentences so closely related that we need a semicolon? It hints at a relationship between the arrival of the truck, or perhaps the truck itself, and the girl in the orange skirt. Is there a reason she’s first in line, other than being faster than the other children? ARE there other children? Is the color of her skirt important for some reason? We don’t ask questions like this without the signal that a semicolon provides, that these two independent clauses are somehow intimately connected. What’s the rest of the story?

Among the Most Famous Semicolons

When to use a semicolon vs colons by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comIn his book Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer (copy chief of Random House) presents a brief discussion of the power of semicolons. On page 45 he excerpts the first paragraph from Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House: one paragraph, six independent clauses, three semicolons. Jackson’s “tightly woven, almost claustrophobic ideas” would be unglued if the semicolons were replaced with commas. Let’s look at just one of the pairings.

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.”

When to use a semicolon vs colons by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comCertainly, Jackson could have used a period there instead of that semicolon. However, if she had, the strength of the combined imagery would be far less. We would no longer have the “not sane” house, standing alone, dark, having done so for eight decades already. We’d have it standing and dark. And we’d be told it had been there for eighty years. The impact is gone, even if the facts are unchanged. The sense of ongoing evil (what else could it be, that darkness it holds?), for eight decades so far and perhaps another eight, is weakened without the close connection to the previous sentence. What has allowed it to stand for so long, and what might let it continue to do so? Why can’t it be defeated? (Don’t we always try to defeat evil?)

That semicolon holds power.

And Now: Colons

Again, I refer you to the OWL for a good basic explanation of colons. Scroll down to the “Colon” heading.

Perhaps the most common use is to introduce a list.

Tobi had a good breakfast: eggs, granola bars, and a banana.

Use semicolons instead of commas if any of the list items has its own internal punctuation (like a comma). I did this earlier, with my list of a few favorite movies. Here’s another example.

I’ve been to several foreign cities: London, England; Munich, Germany; and Strasbourg, France.

The example above might also be rendered this way:

I’ve been to several foreign cities: London; Munich; and Strasbourg, France.

(It can be argued that “everyone knows” where London and Munich are, so there’s no need to list the countries for those. Because the final item contains a comma, we still use semicolons for the entire list.)

You also use a colon when you want people to pay close attention to the thing following it. Instructions and directions make use of this.

The three steps are: Lather, rinse, repeat.

Registration opens on May 15: No registrations will be accepted before that date.

Other uses of the colon are following the salutation in a formal business letter (“Dear Dr. Jacobson:”) and separating the hours and minutes when writing the time of day as numerals (12:51 pm).

What About in Dialogue?

I’ve seen and been part of discussions (some would say “arguments”) about the place of semicolons in dialogue. For myself, I’m not against them; however, I can’t say I’m for them, either. Do people “talk” with mechanics in mind? Of course not. We talk the way we talk. Some of us use short sentences; others employ longer statements with more intricate construction. Still, I’m inclined to leave (“stet”, or “let it stand” in editing notation) semicolons in dialogue provided they’re used correctly in the first place. That’s part of a writer’s style, their voice, and I’m loathe to change that without a very good reason. “I don’t like it” is not a very good reason (and in my case, it’s also not true). We as listeners and readers can often tell whether a speaker or writer intends for two ideas to be tightly bound. Remember the ice cream truck and the girl with the orange skirt? How a speaker says those two sentences tells us a lot about how they’re to be interpreted. There’s a slightly different kind of pause when there’s a semicolon. I can’t explain it, precisely; you learn to hear it in your head, though.

As for colons, I seldom encounter them in dialogue. In narrative, sure. But not in quoted speech, unless perhaps the speaker is reading a set of instructions aloud.

Pick a side, because—much as with the serial comma—the battle rages on.


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3 thoughts on “When to Use a Semicolon vs. Colons: Not So Hard, Really”

  1. I am anti-semicolon in all but technical and formal nonfiction. Most semicolon sentence structures have a formal quality to them that is uncommon in popular fiction with its more vernacular style. It should be used as rarely as an exclamation point in narrative or when nothing else will do for clarity. If you use semicolons often, your narrative voice is probably too heavy or didactic for popular fiction. The same is true of the colon.

    Your example of Shirley Jackson is from many years ago, and fiction narrative has become far less formal and much more streamlined. I doubt you’d find such formal style in most present-day writing.

    If you are looking for grammar subjects, I suggest an explanation of the vocative comma. This is the most common error I see in novels, these days. Also using commas to turn the noun after descriptive adjectives into a parenthetical element. I spotted two of those just today while reading book blurbs.

    Example: After her teenage daughter, Grace, disappears,

  2. Karen Conlin says:

    Semicolons bring out the opinions, don’t they.

    I see a fair number of Jackson-style semicolons from my writers. I would never impose such on a client’s style that didn’t use it, but I suggest it if it feels like a good fit. It’s the client’s decision whether to accept my suggestion.

    I doubt I could wring 1200 words from the vocative comma. What’s more, in current real-world usage it is losing ground in the lower registers. “Hi Mom” is a standard email opening and text message. I suggest the forthcoming “Because Internet” by internet linguist Gretchen McCullough as an excellent text on how the internet changed/is changing English usage, not only in electronic writings but elsewhere as well.

    Similarly, although I could perhaps get 1200 words from the restrictive/nonrestrictive (no hyphen there, as a style choice per Chicago) comma discussion, that is also changing along with the fairly recent “rule” about that/which. What so many of us were taught as rules are often conventions, and sometimes not even that. Preferences become conventions become rules, when no one stops to ask why.

    I will again suggest “Dreyer’s English” for its succinct treatment of what Mr. Dreyer refers to as the “only comma,” used when the appositive name describes the only one of that item (as in “his daughter, Grace”—traditional usage tells us that the comma indicates Grace is the only one, and her name is nonessential information). Far from an “error,” it is a usage point, and one that is coming into question more of late as newer editors wonder if such a distinction is worth keeping.

  3. Leslie Garland says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how different American English is to English English, and perhaps we should all be conscious of the fact that both started out being exactly the same!

    Take one of the examples given: “An ice cream truck pulled up in front of the rec center across the street; a girl in an orange skirt, the color of sherbet, was first in line.”

    Ice cream truck! A truck is a big vehicle for transporting heavy goods; so, ice cream van?
    rec center? I am having to guess here; does rec mean recreation, or similar? In which case should we not be writing rec. center, because rec. is an abbreviation of recreation (or whatever it is an abbreviation of). And center; spelling in English English is centre of course – derived from French or Latin where the r comes directly after the t (e.g. centre and centrum).
    across the street. No, not in English English. On the other side of; on the opposite side of;
    Color. Yes, spelling again. But here the American version does have a logic, as English has probably derived it from the French, colour; whereas American could certainly claim a derivation from the Latin, color.
    First in line; in line for what?; as one can’t be in line for an adjective. In the queue, perhaps?

    Fortunately, or unfortunately depending upon your stance on such things, language is an ever changing, ever evolving means of communication. So, I am afraid I think it ill-behoves any of us to get too pedantic about its usage. Yes, it is amazing to note how much English English and American English have diverged over the years. And I had better not comment on “Strasbourg, France” as that is about geography!

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