Colon vs Semicolon (with Examples)

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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 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  • (Using a semicolon to outrank the commas in the independent clauses is an outdated practice.)

See Also

Using apostrophes Using brackets parentheses Using colons Using commas Using dashes Using hyphens Using quotation marks Using semicolons