Writing tips: colons and semi-colons

Colons and semi-colons are an important part of the writer’s toolbox, and can make a major impact on the way a text functions and flows. However while these two punctuation marks are clearly both very useful in the right hands, many writers fail to recognise the distinct difference between the two.

The colon

In modern day English, colons have a very specific set of uses, and should under no circumstances be confused for semi-colons, which work in a very different way. Primarily, colons should be used in the following ways:

  1. To introduce lists.
  2. In preference to a comma when introducing a full sentence quote.
  3. Between two sentences where the second sentence in some way explains or justifies the first.
  4. To mark antithesis between two sentences.

Colons can also be used in captions to draw a link between the object in the image and the rest of the caption text.

The semi-colon

Though the semi-colon may look similar to the colon, its uses are somewhat different. In summary, semi-colons should be used either:

  1. Between sentences as a longer pause than a comma, and a shorter pause than a full stop.
  2. To separate longer items in a list, especially if each item requires its own form of punctuation.

Please note: a semi-colon should never be used to introduce a list. You should only ever use a semi-colon if you are completely confident that you are using it in the correct way and that it fits logically and coherently with your style. While a semi-colon can, if used correctly, add an extra level of authority to your writing, a poorly judged semi-colon can have the completely opposite effect, and can mark you out as either not being in full command of your prose.

Put simply: if in doubt, leave it out.


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