The English Departmentís
Quick Guide to Using Semicolons
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.
- He loved biology; he hated math.
- Gus loves going to the mountains; his wife prefers the sea.
- The rich are not better than the rest of us; they merely have more money.
Beware! When not to use semicolons--
- On our vacation we went to London, England; Paris, France; and Venice, Italy.
- Among the guests were Sam, the electrician; Bill, the doctor; Anne, the professor; and Fred, the jockey.
- Sharonís brothers were born on April 14, 1963; July 2, 1967; and December 23, 1969.
Do not use a semicolon to punctuate to independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction. Thatís a commaís job.
- Wrong: I like coffee; but I hate tea.
- Right: I like coffee, but I hate tea.
- Wrong: Weíre going to go out to dinner; and then weíll see a movie.
- Right: Weíre going to go out to dinner, and then weíll see a movie.
Do not use a semicolon to connect clauses and phrases. Thatís also a commaís job.
- Wrong: Jim has read many books; for example Treasure Island and Great Expectations.
- Right: Jim has read many books, such as Treasure Island and Great Expectations.
- Wrong: Julie also invited Mrs. Sterner; her second-grade teacher.
- Right: Julie also invited Mrs. Sterner, her second-grade teacher.
Do not use a semicolon to connect a main clause and a subordinate clause. Thatís yet another job for--guess what--a comma.
- Wrong: My car is getting old; although I hope to be able to drive it for one more year.
- Right: My car is getting old, although I hope to be able to drive it for one more year.
- Wrong: If Sheryl gets that job; she will have to move to Ohio.
- Right: If Sheryl gets that job, she will have to move to Ohio.
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.
- That night, Tammy saw something she would have sworn did not exist: a UFO hovering over the cornfield.
- The hungry child could think about only one thing: food.
- At last, Ashley could afford her dream vacation: a trip to London.
Use a colon to introduce a quotation.
- Iím taking four classes this semester: English, Chemistry, Algebra, and History.
- Tamsenís Christmas list fell into four main categories: clothes, CDs, videos, and books.
- Sheila has visited five countries: Canada, Mexico, England, France, and Germany.
- Hereís what you should pack for the sleepover: a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and your toothbrush.
Use a colon to introduce a single word or phrase you want to emphasize.
- Deborah Tannen makes this observation: "Conversation is a ritual."
- Harry said it more than once: "I shall make it big in Hollywood."
Use a colon to separate hours from minutes when reporting a time.
- If Iíve told you once, Iíve told you a thousand times: no!
- Joanís teenage daughter has only one real interest: MTV.
- After his fifth disastrous blind date, Rodney made a vow: never again.
Beware! When not to use colons--
- School gets out at 2:15.
- Joe knew he had to hurry to make the 7:34 train.
Do not use a colon between a verb or a preposition and its object.
- Wrong: For her birthday, Katie received: a bicycle, a new video game, and some clothes.
- Right: For her birthday, Katie received a bicycle, a new video game, and some clothes.
- Also right: Hereís what Katie received for her birthday: a bicycle, a new video game, and some clothes.
- Wrong: She went to: the store, the dry cleaner, and the gas station.
- Right: She went to the store, the dry cleaner, and the gas station.
- Also right: She went to several places: the store, the dry cleaner, and the gas station.
Do not use a colon after such as.
- Wrong: P.J. has had many jobs, such as: cashier, waiter, cook, sales clerk.
- Right: P.J. has had many jobs, such as cashier, waiter, cook, sales clerk.
- Also right: Just look at all the jobs P.J. has had: cashier, waiter, cook, sales clerk.
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