Grammar 101 – Semicolons and Colons

When it comes to semicolons, there are four types of people in the world. The smallest group is the ones who know how to use one properly. The next group thinks semicolons look cool and impressive and use them everywhere. The third type of person believes it’s called “that comma with a dot” and knows a semicolon is a piece of punctuation, but nothing more. The fourth is convinced that it’s a part of the digestive system.

Leaving off the first group as already in the know and the fourth as hopeless, I’ll assume you are either the second or third type of person. So what is a semicolon? Well, it is a comma with a dot over it, but it’s also a lot more. A semicolon indicates a pause in writing-a longer pause than a comma. Roughly, a semicolon is the same pause as a period, but instead of ending a thought the way a period does, the semicolon allows that thought to continue. It makes the joining of the two sentences more than implied. Instead, it demands that the reader see the two things as being parts of the same, because the two sentences are now a part of the same sentence. It’s like symmetry in grammar.

There are two main uses for the semicolon. The first is to connect two sentences into a single sentence. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
It was raining. The game ended.

Here we have two perfectly fine sentences. Each one expresses a complete thought. They’re also somewhat related, if we want to assume (and it’s a safe assumption in this case) that the game ended because of the rain. So, if we want to make that connection actual instead of just implying it, we can stick a semicolon between the two sentences instead of a period. We get this:
It was raining; the game ended.

And that works perfectly. The semicolon joins two perfectly good sentences that could stand on their own into on sentence with two parts that relate to each other.

Keep in mind that the trick here is that we’re talking about two sentences. The words that come before the semicolon and the words that come after the semicolon must be able to stand on their own as a sentence. Allow me to demonstrate:
Because it was raining; the game ended.

Is this correct? The best way to see is to remove the semicolon and see if each part of the sentence works on its own. We already know from the first example that “The game ended” is a fine sentence. But how about the first part? “Because it was raining” is a dependant clause and not a sentence. It can’t be by itself without the second part, so in this case, the semicolon is wrong. A semicolon has to join complete sentences or it can’t be used.

Not too hard, right? Two sentences can be joined and related to each other by a semicolon. The trick is to make sure that the words before and after the semicolon are sentences on their own. If they are, the semicolon is your punctuation mark of choice.

So what else are they good for? Semicolons are used to separate items in a list. Normally, commas are used for this purpose, but there are times when the items include commas, and this would get confusing. The semicolon steps up and takes the comma’s job in these cases. Here’s what I mean:
Our guests at dinner last night were my mother, a teacher, my father, a businessman, and my brother, a doctor.

How many people at dinner? It looks like there were five guests: my mother, my father, a teacher, a businessman, and my doctor brother. But it’s not what I intended. I wanted to say that my mother is the teacher and my father is the businessman. This is where the semicolon comes in. The list should look like this:
Our guests at dinner last night were my mother, a teacher; my father, a businessman; and my brother, a doctor.

Now we’ve got it right. The comma between “my mother” and “a teacher” indicates that my mother is a teacher. The semicolon following that separates her as one item in the list and indicates that the next thing is a new item in the list. So three guests, and you know the occupation of each.

Remember those four groups of people? There are four similar groups when it comes to the colon. We have those who know how to use it, those who think it makes them look smart and toss them around, those who call them “the eyes on a sideways smiley face,” and those who are absolutely convinced we’re talking about the digestive tract when the colon is mentioned.

Again, I’ll figure you as a member of group two or three. The colon, which can be used to make sideways smiley face eyes, is also a very powerful piece of punctuation. And it is impressive. A colon makes a statement; it suggests that what is to follow is of great importance, so if you’re reading along, you had better pay attention.

A colon is usually used to introduce a formal list. The trick here is that, like with the semicolon, everything that comes in front of the colon must be a complete sentence by itself. In the following examples, one uses the colon correctly and one uses it incorrectly:
This year for school, you will need: pencils, pens, three notebooks, and four folders.
You need several items for this school year: pencils, pens, three notebooks, and four folders.

So which one is right? Check the words that come before the colon. “This year for school, you will need” is not a complete sentence. You can’t put a period after that and have it make sense. The colon is wrong. In the other example, “You need several items for school this year” is a complete thought. It’s a sentence, so the colon introduces the list of items properly.

You can also use a colon to introduce a single thought or item of great importance. That sounds impressive and exciting, but it really isn’t any trickier than introducing a list with a colon. The rules stay the same. As long as everything coming before the colon is a complete sentence, you’re fine to throw that colon in and have it look smart. Here’s what I mean:
I have decided to do something about bad grammar: write a series of articles explaining proper usage.

Everything before the colon is a sentence. The part after it is a single thought or pronouncement that (depending on your point of view) is important or not. I think it’s important, anyway.

Think I’m full of it? Go back and read through these instructions. You may remember that there are several places I ended a paragraph with a colon to introduce examples. Take a look for yourself; in every case, the words before the colon are a complete sentence, and the example that follows is an item of (at least within this essay) importance.

See? Not too tough. Go thou now and sin no more against the semicolon and colon.

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