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Colon vs Semicolon (with Examples)

Colon versus Semicolon

Colons and semicolons have different functions. A colon is like a "literary equals sign" (as opposed to mathematical one), and a semicolon is like a half full stop or half period. (The semicolon is badly named. Given its function, it should have been called a "semi-full stop" or a "semi-period.")

Outlined below are the functions of the colon and the semicolon.

The Function of a Colon

A colon is used:

To expand on something already mentioned in the sentence.
  • He blamed his divorce on one thing: beer.
  • (A colon is like an equals sign. In this example, one thing equals beer.)
  • His fingerprints were found in two rooms: the kitchen and the bedroom.
  • (In this example, two rooms equals the kitchen and the bedroom.)
After an introduction.
  • During the inspection, I saw the following: a dead rat, a live rat, dozens of cockroaches, and countless ants.
  • (When a colon is used after an introduction, it is often bullet points that follow.)
Read more about using colons with bullet points.

In references, times, and titles
  • Read Genesis 1:1 before 07:30.
With quotations
  • He said: "Curiosity killed the cat, but for a while I was a suspect."

The Function of a Semicolon

A semicolon is used:

In lists when the list items contain commas.
  • Simon, the officer in charge; Daniel, the guide; and Ollie, the cameraman
Read more about using semicolons in lists

To create a smoother transition between sentences, particularly when the second starts with a phrase like however or as a result.
  • In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock. (Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826)
  • The wind was creating waves up to three feet high; as a result, we had to cancel the swim.
Before a conjunction that merges two "sentences" (i.e., independent clauses) containing commas
  • Rather surprisingly, the majestic pike is hardly used in cooking today; but in Victorian times, pastry-topped pike was a very common dish. 
  • (Using a semicolon to outrank the commas in the independent clauses is an outdated practice.)