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.)

Table of Contents

  • How to Use a Colon
  • How to Use a Semicolon
  • Test Time!
colons versus semicolons

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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This page was written by Craig Shrives.