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Semicolon & Colon use

Balloon: thing to take meteoric observations and commit suicide with.—Mark Twain


Did you know that in Greek, the semicolon is used to indicate a question? And the colon in Finnish and Swedish is used like the English apostrophe? The semicolon and colon are also used in mathematics, in computer code, and in emoticons : ).  These symbols really get around.  In the English language, they are also important symbols, and have been since before the 17th century. The rules governing semicolon and colon use in English writing are quite specific.  In this module students will learn these rules, as well as how to use colons and semicolons effectively in their writing.


  • learn to use semicolons and colons between independent clauses
  • learn to use semi-colons with commas in a list
  • learn to use colons with items in a list
  • learn the other conventions of colon and semicolon use


Semicolon Use Between Independent Clauses

A semicolon is used between two independent clauses to indicate a close relationship between ideas.  A semicolon is stronger separation than a comma + coordinating conjunction, but not as strong as a period.  Writers often use a semi-colon when they want to state an idea in more specific terms.  For example,

Using a quote also shows that you are informed; who you quote says something about your point of view—great minds think alike, so to speak.

Semicolon with Sentence Adverbs:

A semi-colon (or a period) should also be used with sentence adverbs such as "however," "moreover," "therefore," "at least," and "even so" to connect two sentences. Sentence adverbs are transition words rather than conjunctions, and so they cannot be used to connect clauses. For example,

Sometimes she wakes up with a smile on her face; sometimes she wakes up ready to bite my head off.

Maria made a big Italian dinner for the family; what is more, she made the cannolis herself!

Below is a list of words typically used as sentence adverbs:

to indicate time:

then, meanwhile, henceforth, afterward, later, soon, at one moment...at the next, sometimes...sometimes, now...then

to indicate addition:

likewise, moreover, furthermore, in addition, besides, then too, also, partly...partly, for one thing ...for another (thing), what is more

to indicate contrast or concession:

however, nevertheless, still, on the contrary, instead, rather, one the one hand. . . on the other hand, exactly the opposite, at least

to indicate a result:

consequently, then, therefore, thus, hence, accordingly, as a result

to indicate condition:



Note:  On either side of the semicolon, the sentence must be an independent clause.  It is not acceptable to connect a phrase to a clause with a semicolon.

Semi-Colon Use With Commas in a List

Typically, items in a list are separated by commas; however, when the items themselves require commas, what each comma in the list is being used for can be unclear.  In this case, semicolons are used to separate the items in the series.  For example,

This party is really boring: the music is terrible; nobody is talking, at least not to me; and none of my good friends is here.

This summer on our road trip we will visit Fargo, North Dakota; Madison, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; New York, New York; and Boston, Massachusetts.


Colon Use With Items in a List

A colon is used after an independent clause to preface a list of items, even if the list includes only a single item.

I am going to the grocery store to buy the ingredients for fajitas: chicken, green and red peppers, onions, cumin, tortillas, and hot sauce.

I agree with the statement Gertrude Stein made about Oakland: "There's no 'there' there."

It is not acceptable to use a colon after an incomplete sentence to begin a list, so be very careful to ensure that the clause is complete:


When you come to take the exam, bring the following: pencils, a pencil sharpener, a calculator, and a dictionary.


When you come to take the exam, bring the following items: pencils, a pencil sharpener, a calculator, and a dictionary.

In the first version, the independent clause lacks a direct object, and so the sentence is incomplete.  This mistake is corrected in the second version.



Colon Use Between Independent Clauses

A Colon can be used after an independent clause to introduce a list, but it can also be used to introduce another independent clause that illustrates or elaborates upon the idea in the first clause. One could think of the first clause as a kind of overture, and the second clause as the movement(s) of a symphony. Take a look at the following example. The sentence begins with an independent clause, "The seas were full of islands where spices grew and countless strange creatures lived," the rest of the sentence, which takes up the entire paragraph, illustrates the idea in that first clause:

The seas were full of islands where spices grew and countless strange creatures lived: one-eyed men; men with a lip long enough to cover their whole face; men with only one foot, but that so large that they held it over them like an umbrella when they lay down in the sun to rest; two-headed men and men with no heads at all; men whose only food was snakes, and others whose favorite beverage was human blood; dragons and unicorns; woolly hens and sheep that grew on trees; and in one island a valley where only devils dwelt. (Ten Great Events in History, James Johonnot)



Other Conventions of Colon Use

Colon in Stating Time

Use a colon between the hour and the minute.

10:30 p.m.    7:00 a.m.     3:00 p.m.

The Bible

When referring to passages in the Bible, use a colon between the chapter and the verse.

John 11:35    Job 3:2

Titles and Subtitles

A colon is used between a title and subtitle of a book or article. These days, however, many academics urge students to avoid creating titles in the "title colon subtitle" format because such titles can sound a bit pretentious, or even inappropriately humorous for the content of the essay that follows. The title-colon-subtitle format is very popular in newspapers and popular magazines, however: this type of title enables the journalist to frame the subject and the angle the journalist will take on the subject in a single, short sentence.

Colons: Annoying Convention or Useful Tool? (just made this one up)

Art/Sci Collision: Of Human-Robot Bondage (title of a new lecture series at the American Museum of Natural History)

Smarts in a Bottle: UK Government Evaluates Cognition Enhancers (title of article at Wired.com)


In a business letter, a colon is placed after the salutation rather than a comma (used in informal letters).

To Whom it May Concern:     Dear Sir:      Dear Mr. Spiegler





Video Lesson
quotes lesson


1. semicolons & independent clauses

2. semicolons with commas in a list

3. colon use with items in a list

4. colon use between independent clauses

5. other conventions of colon use

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