Colon vs Semicolon (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives
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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 period" or "half full stop."
colon versus semicolon

How to Use a Colon

A colon has four functions:

(1) 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.")
(2) 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.

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

How to Use a Semicolon

A semicolon has three functions:

(1) 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. (President Thomas Jefferson)
  • The wind was creating waves up to three feet high; as a result, we had to cancel the swim.

Do Not Overuse Semicolons!

Do not use too many semicolons in your writing. They get annoying quickly. Here are three scenarios when it would be acceptable to use a semicolon instead of a period (full stop):

(Scenario 1) When your two sentences feel like cause and effect.

If you could merge your two sentences into one with a word like "because" or "as" (called subordinating conjunctions), then consider a semicolon.
  • I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; because had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes. (Playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay) correct tick
(Scenario 2) When your two sentences have similar structures and deliberate repetition.
  • You don't pay taxes; they take taxes. (Comedian Chris Rock)
  • Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open. (Author Stephen King)
(Scenario 3) When your two sentences could be merged with a comma and a conjunction, e.g., "and," "or," "but," "for," "so" (especially "but," "for," and "so").
  • Go not to the elves for counsel; they will say both no and yes.
  • (This is acceptable.)
  • Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.
  • (This is original text by JRR Tolkien. Note the comma and "for.")
(2) 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

(3) 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.)

Further Reading

A List of Lessons about Colons

Here is a list of Grammar Monster lessons about colons:

A List of Lessons about Semicolons

Here is a list of Grammar Monster lessons about semicolons:

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