Semicolon or Colon?

January 15, 2013

Good morning, dear readers!

We are pleased to announce our blog’s newest feature: writing tips! Each month we will be posting writing tips that we hope you will find helpful in your work. Remember, whether you’re writing the next best-selling novel or your next A+ paper, everyone loves reading a good, clean sentence.

Today we aim to help you in your lifelong quest to answer the age old question: Does this sentence call for a semicolon or a colon?!

The semicolon
Three things to remember about the semicolon:
(1) it’s stronger than a comma.
(2) it’s weaker than a period.
(3) the parts on either side of it must be able to stand on their own.

Correct:
They had had no dinner the night before; as a result, they were famished.

Incorrect:
They had had no dinner the night before; which meant they were famished. [second clause is grammatically incomplete; semicolon should be replaced by comma]
They had had no dinner the night before, as a result, they were famished. [comma isn’t strong enough; semicolon needed]

The colon
Three things to remember about the colon:
(1) it must be preceded by a complete sentence.
(2) it has a logical function: the thing after it must explain the thing before it (or, in rare circumstances, the other way round).
(3) you can’t use it to introduce a list unless the introduction is a complete sentence. This is true even in the case of a bulleted or numbered list, although it’s increasingly common (especially in marketing materials) for people to insist on a colon before a list “because it looks weird not to have one”.

Correct:
The restaurant offers three colours of pasta: green, red, and black.
The wallpaper, my dear, is precisely the problem: its vomitrocious pattern completely ruins the ambiance.

Incorrect:
The restaurant has on the menu: green, red, and black pasta. [introduction is not a complete sentence; there should be no punctuation in that spot at all]
The wallpaper has a vomitrocious pattern: the table is ugly too. [second clause doesn’t explain first clause and is, indeed, almost completely unrelated; a semicolon should be used instead]

And there you have it — the basic difference between a semicolon and a colon. For more great tips on the proper use of a semicolon, check out Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips.

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Stay tuned for more writing tips in the future!

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