The English Departmentís
Quick Guide to Using Semicolons
and Colons


A semicolon announces a pause in the thought of a sentence. Its pause is less strong than period and stronger than a comma.

You can use this pause in two ways.

Use a semicolon between two independent clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction.

Note: The coordinating conjunctions are and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet.

The clauses should contain two thoughts that you want closely connected, so that a period seems too much of a separation.

Use a semicolon to separate items in a series which already contains commas. Beware! When not to use semicolons--

Do not use a semicolon to punctuate to independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction. Thatís a commaís job.

Do not use a semicolon to connect clauses and phrases. Thatís also a commaís job.

Do not use a semicolon to connect a main clause and a subordinate clause. Thatís yet another job for--guess what--a comma.


Colons are easy. They are used to introduce and emphasize what follows. A colon comes at the end of an independent clause. (That means a colon must follow a clause containing a subject and a predicate.) Hereís a list showing when you should use a colon:

Use a colon to introduce an explanation.

Use a colon to introduce a series or list. Use a colon to introduce a quotation. Use a colon to introduce a single word or phrase you want to emphasize. Use a colon to separate hours from minutes when reporting a time. Beware! When not to use colons--

Do not use a colon between a verb or a preposition and its object.

Do not use a colon after such as.

Correct use of colons and semicolons gives you more control over emphasis in your writing. Using semicolons, you show a tighter connection between two thoughts than a period allows. Using colons, you show a greater degree of emphasis on what follows the colon. Try using both of these marks of punctuation in your writing, but be careful not to overuse either one.

© The English Department 1999