Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Semicolons and Colons

Recently we asked some folks what the most confusing grammar rule is. We got a lot of who vs. whom, affect vs. effect, and semicolon confusion. We've already cleared up who and whom, so let's get down to business on another issue: the semicolon.


Separating Independent Clauses

In our last post, we explained what clauses are and how to use them. Understanding that concept will be very useful when we're talking about semicolons. Strictly speaking, semicolons are mainly used to separate independent clauses when you still want them somewhat connected. Let's look at an example.
  • She spent much of her free time immersed in the ocean; no mere water-resistant watch would do.*
In this sentence, we have two independent clauses: "She spent much of her free time," and "watch would do." Because the subject matter of each is so related to the other, a period would be too much separation. A semicolon shows that the clauses are connected and they somewhat rely on one another. You shouldn't connect two independent clauses with a comma; its cementing power is not quite strong enough—it's more like a Post-It when a semicolon is more like rubber cement.

More examples:
  • Call me later; I have something to tell you.
  • If you want to see John, you'll have to wait; he's away on vacation.
  • Your comments are unnecessary; I know my shirt is ugly.
You should also use a semicolon with certain adverbs, like "however," "therefore," and "indeed."
  • The trumpet player developed a painful cold sore; therefore plans for a third show were scrapped.*
  • I wish I could tell you I finished the project; unfortunately, the flu prevented me from working on it.

Semicolons in Complex Lists

We've talked about using commas in lists before, but what you might not know is that semicolons are also dead useful when your list has internal punctuation. What the heck does that mean, you ask? Let's discuss.

Here's a pretty straightforward list: "I need new shoes, a belt, and gloves." Three distinct items, all separated by commas. Not too bad.

Here's a more confusing list: "His excuses were myriad: His shoes, belt, and gloves went missing; his cat—who had a terrible case of diarrhea—needed to be picked up from the vet; and his mother, father, and siblings had given away all his possessions."

So, in the above example, the poor guy had three excuses. We used semicolons to separate them because in a couple of his excuses there were commas and em dashes.


Colons are also used to separate clauses, but they're a little bit more versatile: They can separate independent and dependent clauses or they can separate two independent clauses (like we did here in this very sentence!). Generally, though, colons are considered stronger than semicolons and should be used when you're indicating that what follows the colon explains or amplifies what came before it. For example, they're frequently used to introduce lists.
  • Things to pack: shampoo and conditioner, a razor, and a towel.
  • I just had a great idea: Let's get a puppy!
Did you notice that we capitalized "Let's" after the colon? That's because it's a complete sentence. This practice is generally well accepted, but some styles say that you can only capitalize after a colon if there are two or more sentences after it, as in the example below.
  • Yolanda faced a conundrum: She could finish the soup, pretending not to care that what she had thought until a moment ago was a vegetable broth was in fact made from chicken. She could feign satiety and thank the host for a good meal. Or she could use this opportunity to assert her preference for a vegan diet.*
For your own personal writing, it's okay to pick one way of doing things and run with it!

We were going to do an image search for
"colon," but we thought better of it.

As always, please comment below if you have any questions or need further examples. And if you have a project that needs polishing, just head to the Interest Form and let us know. We're always happy to help.

*This example is taken from the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.