# Colons vs Semicolons

## Do Not Confuse Colons and Semicolons

Writers are often confused over colons and semicolons. Their names might suggest they're similar, but colons and semicolons have very different functions.

In general terms, a colon functions like an "equals sign," and a semicolon functions either like a "half period" ("half full stop") or a heavy comma. For example:
• I saw just one person: Jack.
• (Here, "one person" equals "Jack." So, the colon is like an equals sign.)
• I know it is true; I saw it happen.
• (The semicolon is like a half period. It divides two "sentences" like a period, but less abruptly.)
• I know Jack, the baker; Jill, the lawyer; and Tony, the accountant.
• (The semicolons are like heavy commas. They divide the list items, which themselves contain commas.)

• How to Use a Colon
• How to Use a Semicolon
• Test Time!

## 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.)

(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)

(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

(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.)