That little key on my keyboard to the right of the letter L has been kidnapped! If I try to indicate in a sentence what a colon looks like and I put a colon in parentheses, I get a smiley face instead. Only after I go back and type (:) again do I get what I want. Those emoticons are taking over the world!
But don’t let them fool you! Both the semicolon and the colon are still useful and acceptable punctuation marks in English. All you need to do is remember how to use them correctly and you’ll be lauded as a punctuation whiz!
Before we talk about the rules, however, here’s a little history of both marks, compliments of Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. She indicates that both marks have been around in English since probably the Middle Ages. But it took several centuries for grammarians — and writers — to agree on their acceptable usage. They are now considered alike in that both the semicolon and the colon indicate to the reader that more closely related material is coming. They are different in that the semicolon is used between two complete sentences that are closely related in content and/or structure, whereas, in Truss’s words, “A colon is nearly always preceded by a complete sentence [but not necessarily followed by a complete sentence], and in its simplest usage it rather theatrically announces what is to come” (118).
This difference will become clearer once we look at some examples.
A semicolon is often interchangeable with a period. After all, both are used between two complete sentences. But there are a few cases where a semicolon is still more appropriate.
Case #1: When a conjunctive adverb (consequently, nevertheless, therefore, however, as a result, moreover, etc.) is used between two complete sentences.
People use the word Kleenex as a generic term that refers to all different kinds of facial tissue; however, this term is still considered a trademark of a specific manufacturer.
My son didn’t keep his part of the bargain; therefore, he is not going to the rock concert this weekend.
Case #2: When two closely related sentences contain two equally important or parallel ideas but no conjunction is used.
The young man dreams of conquering the world; the old man wishes he had spent more time with his family.
My husband loves to go mountain climbing; I’d rather sit on the porch and read.
Case #3: When a sentence already contains a number of commas that might confuse the reader. In this case, the semicolon steps in to divide the endless comma chain into meaningful units.
Mrs. Studebaker sent party invitations to her hairdresser, Connie; her chauffeur; and her personal shopper, Kim.
The new officers of the City Club are Tom Jones, president; Charlotte Web, vice president; Yuri Goodfellow, treasurer; and Fran Chickersee, secretary.
As mentioned above, colons announce that something that has been hinted at earlier is now coming. But the structure of the sentence needs to meet certain requirements.
Case #1: Lists. Many people feel the urge to put a colon at the beginning of any list. But the colon is appropriate only when the list is introduced by a noun (underlined in the examples).
A. To make chili, you will need the following ingredients: hamburger, tomatoes, kidney beans, onions, and chili powder.
A colon would not be appropriate in this version: To make chili, you will need hamburger, tomatoes, kidney beans, onions, and chili powder.
B. During a European tour, our chorus sang in these cities: Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague.
A colon would not be appropriate in this version: During a European tour, our chorus sang in Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague.
Case #2: To provide an example of something already mentioned — and create a little suspense!
On my trip to Florida, I forgot the most important thing: my bathing suit.
It was the question she had been waiting for all night: Will you marry me?
Now that you know how to use semicolons and colons correctly, go and do likewise. And may the Champions of Correct Punctuation be with you!
Work cited: Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2003.