Semicolons and Colons


The semicolon has a tremendous potential for abuse. After all, you can combine two sentences with a semicolon and not bother with a conjunction. What is to stop you from just writing one paper-length sentence, with all the ideas joined by semicolons?

I ordered Chris to leave, and he slammed the door on his way out.

I ordered Chris to leave; he slammed the door on his way out.

I ordered Chris to leave. He slammed the door on his way out.

The semicolon sits halfway between two punctuation marks, the comma and the period. A comma-plus-conjunction connects two ideas quite closely, while a period separates them. A semicolon represents a happy medium. Consider these examples:

Each version feels a bit different. In the first sentence, where a comma is accompanied by and, the two events are connected in a clear chronological sequence: "I did this, and Chris did that." In the second sentence, the semicolon implies that the two events are connected, but the nature of the connection isn't stated explicitly. In the third sentence, the period makes the two events seem even more distinct. In all three cases, we infer that Chris left because he was ordered to, and that the order made him angry. But unlike the comma-plus-conjunction, the semicolon and period require us to make inferences, since they have less to say about how the events are connected.

My friend wants to take a road trip, but he can't afford a car.

My friend wants to take a road trip; however, he can't afford a car.

Perhaps, though, you don't want to ask so much of your reader. In that case, you can select a conjunctive adverb such as however, therefore, or nonetheless to accompany a semicolon, just as you can select a conjunction such as and or but to accompany a comma:

In these sentences, but and however indicate the logical connection between the ideas expressed in the two independent clauses. As you may have noticed, the version with however sounds more formal than its precedessor; it is even a little stiff. As you choose transitional expressions in your writing, you will want to consider such matters of tone.

There were three of us: Napoleon, Socrates, and I.

He gave this example: Suppose you were driving the wrong way on a one-way street.

Use a colon to introduce a list, an example, or a quotation, as follows:

The third use, with a quotation, can be a bit awkward, but it is correct. Do not, however, use a colon in a sentence like this:

After a verb such as "wrote" or "said," a comma is preferable to a colon. For a better example of how to use colons to integrate quotations or examples, look back over this article, where I have done it again and again.

Thomas Paine wrote: "That government is best which governs least."


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