Semicolon vs. Colon: When to Use Colons and Semicolons

Semicolon vs. Colon! Semicolons and colons are punctuation marks with separate functions. A colon precedes elements or multiple elements that illustrate the previously provided information. In contrast, a semicolon indicates a connection between two distinct independent clauses.

Semicolon vs. Colon

What is a Semicolon?

What is the symbol (;) called in English? It is called a semicolon which consists of a dot above a comma ( ; ).

A semicolon is mainly used to separate two independent clauses while still demonstrating that a close relationship exists between them. The semicolon does a better job of showing the connection between two statements than a full stop would.

When to Use a Semicolon with Examples

1. We use a semicolon between items in a list or series when the items themselves contain commas.

Examples:

  • There are eight members on the team: two from China and Japan; three from France and Spain; two from Brazil and Chile; and one from India.
  • We visited Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore in the spring; Germany, France, and Italy in the summer; and South Africa in the fall.

2. We use a semicolon to join two independent clauses that are not connected with a coordinate conjunction.

A semicolon is used to separate two independent clauses while still demonstrating that a close relationship exists between them. The semicolon does a better job of showing the connection between two statements than a full stop would.

Examples:

  • They came all the way home; even so, they all knew they had to go back once more.
  • My daughter is a teacher; my son is a doctor.
  • John always slept with the light on; he was afraid of the dark.
  • John likes to play cricket; David likes to play soccer.
  • I drank lemonade; Tom drank tea.
  • My husband would like coffee; I would prefer tea.
  • I went to the basketball court; I was told it was closed for cleaning.
  • I told Anna she’s running for the hills; I wonder if she knew I was joking.

What is a Colon?

What is the symbol (:) called in English? It is called a colon which is a punctuation mark consisting of two dots one over the other ( : ).

A colon is a fairly common punctuation mark with a varied number of uses. It can be used to introduce a quotation, an example, a series, or even an explanation. Secondly, it can be used to separate two independent clauses. Finally, a colon can be used to show emphasis.

When to Use a Colon with Examples

1. We use colons to introduce lists, series, quotations, and explanations. 

A colon is used to announce, introduce a list, a quotation, and before a final clause that explains something in the sentence.

Examples of colons with lists, series:

  • He was going to buy three things: chairs, tables, and utensils. 
  • John has all the ingredients: minced clams, milk, potatoes, and onions.
  • I have packed my cricket kit with the equipment I need: bats, gloves and pads.
  • A man needs three things to survive: air, water and food.

Examples of colons with quotations:

  • John wrote: “I wish you a merry Christmas. All affection and best wishes to you and yours.”

2. We use colons to separate independent clauses.

Examples:

  • They will not make it: the storm is too strong. 

3. We use colons to show emphasis.

Examples:

  • He was there for one person: his mother. 
  • You have two choices: finish the work today or lose the contract.
  • That’s because we have one goal: for you to consider your website a success.

4. We use colons to separate units of time.

Examples:

  • Sophia set her alarm clock for 6:30 a.m.
  • She ran the marathon in 1:27:34.5. (one hour, twenty seven minutes, thirty-four point five seconds.)

Examples of Colons and Semicolons in Sentences

Colons in Sentences

Colons intimidate many people; however, they are easy to use. Colons point you towards the information that comes after them. The colon silently states which is/are and thus. Hence, it announces the illustration of the information that preceded the colon.

List

Colons precede lists. The information before the colon introduces a type of list. You would interrupt the colon as meaning “and they are”. For example:

  • There are 3 types of ice-cream in the dispenser (and they are): vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate.

The colon indicates that a list of the types of ice-cream in the dispenser is forthcoming. The colon replaces the need for writing “and they are” before vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate.

You can also signal the clarification of a specific concept with a colon.

  • We have three choices (and they are): run, fight or die.

The colon silently communicates these choices without having to use the words “and they are.”

Quotes

Colons can introduce quotations. You can use quotes to clarify a statement.

  • She ended her diatribe with the words of William Shakespeare: “All’s well that ends well.”

Independent Clauses

Colons connect independent clauses under two conditions. First, the second clause must directly relate to the first. Second, the second clause must receive emphasis over the first. When used like this, the colon is softer than the period and stronger than the semicolon.

  • Clank was right: the sky is falling.
  • A shark is not a mammal: it is a fish.

Semicolons in Sentences

Independent Clauses

A semicolon looks like a period on top of a comma. This punctuation mark joins two independent clauses together. That is to say, there should be a complete sentence before and after a semicolon. Also, the two independent clauses must share a close logical connection.

  • Monica went to the library; Mark went to the sporting goods store.
  • I eat cake whenever I can; life’s too short to have it only on special occasions.
  • Evil is not born; it is made.

Generally, capital letters do not follow a semicolon; however, a capital letter will follow a semicolon if the next word is a proper noun or an acronym. In the first example, you would capitalize Mark because it is a proper noun.

Conjunction words like and or but join two independent clauses. Alternatively, you can use a semicolon to join these independent clauses. When you join two sentences together with a semicolon you negate the need for a conjunction word.

  • I saw a duck, and it was chasing a lion.
  • I saw a duck; it was chasing a lion.

Both example sentences are correct. The first example uses a comma with and to join the two sentences. You must use a comma along with a conjunction to link two independent clauses. Just using a comma alone would not work. Adding only a comma to join the clause will result in a comma splice. In contrast, the second example only uses a semicolon to link the two sentences.

Lists

Semicolons separate long lists with internal punctuations. The semicolon makes it easier to track items with divisions.

  • I plan to live in many places: Paris, France; Vancouver, Canada; Venice, Italy; Rome, Italy; Dublin, Ireland.

Conjunctive Adverb

When using a conductive adverb to join two independent clauses a semicolon needs to precede it. Some examples of conjunctive adverbs include, however, otherwise, and finally.

  • She wanted to buy the car; however, she did not have the money to do so.

American vs. British Usage of Colons and Semicolons

British English users do not use a capital after a colon. This in contrast to American English users. American users capitalize the beginning of the word that follows the colon if it precedes an independent clause.

British and American semicolon usage is the same. Words following a semicolon are not capitalized unless they describe a proper noun or appear as part of an acronym.

Common Mistakes Using a Colon vs. Using a Semicolon (and How to Avoid)

You cannot use semicolons, comma, and colons interchangeably. When you do, language errors develop. For instance, a semicolon cannot join an independent clause and a dependent clause. The semicolon only links two independent clauses. To connect a dependent clause to an independent you would use a comma instead.

Wrong        In the middle of the night; I went to the store.

Correct       In the middle of the night, I went to the store.

Alternatively, using a comma instead of a semicolon leads to a comma splice.

Wrong       I went to the store, I bought some milk.

Correct       I went to the store; I bought some milk.

Sometimes people place a semicolon where they should place a colon. People get confused with how to use the two in lists. A colon introduces a list of elements. In contrast, a semicolon only separates elements within the list.

Wrong        Three girls went to the store; Maddy, Megan, and Rue.

Correct        Three girls went to the store: Maddy, Megan, and Rue.

People often forget that colons cannot separate verbs and objects or subject complements. Nor can colons disconnect a preposition from its object. Also, when writing you do not separate subjects/ predicates and noun/verbs with colons.

Wrong       I want to go to: the store, the movies, and the fire station.

Wrong       The three places I wanted to go were: Denmark, China, and Canada.

Colon, Semicolon vs. Dashes

Dashes are usually not grammatically necessary, unlike colons and semicolons. Dashes are primarily used for 4 reasons. They provide emphasis and break up dialogue. Dashes indicate a sentence conclusion or introduction. In addition, dashes highlight additional words or phrases not necessary for the meaning of a sentence. Commas usually surround these additional words and phrases. Using dashes can help break up the text when too many commas are already at play.

Sentence examples

  • The girl needed to get back home to her roots — Nova Scotia.
  • “I — I don’t know who that is,” she stammered.
  • Bugs, dirt, snakes – many shared these concerns about camping in the wilderness.
  • Everything — her job, her husband, and her car — failed to bring her joy.

Semicolon vs. Colon | Infographic

Learn the differences between a colon and a semicolon in English with this useful table.

Semicolon vs. Colon: When to Use Colons and SemicolonsPin

Colon vs. Semicolon Quiz

Circle the correctly punctuated sentence in each question.

Question #1

  1. You wanted ice-cream he gave you one.
  2. You wanted: ice-cream he gave you one.
  3. You wanted ice-cream; he gave you one.

Question #2

  1. We ordered the package over 3o weeks ago: therefore, we should receive it soon.
  2. We ordered the package, over 30 weeks ago: therefore we should receive it soon.
  3. We ordered the package over 30 weeks ago; therefore, we should receive it soon.

Question #3

  1. She feared three things; doctors, snakes, and crocodiles.
  2. She feared: 3 things; doctors, snakes, and crocodiles.
  3. She feared 3 things: doctors, snakes, and crocodiles.

Question # 4

  1. He broke her heart in three places.
  2. He broke her heart; in three places.
  3. He broke her heart in three places.

Question #5

  • The shop has three managers: Ted, Fred, and Ed.
  • The shop has three managers; Ted, Fred, and Ed.
  • The shop has three; managers: Ted, Fred, and Ed.
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11 months ago

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