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Semicolons and colons both indicate breaks in the flow of a sentence, but each has its own particular use distinct from the uses of periods or commas.
Semicolons to join two independent clauses
Use a semicolon to combine two closely related independent clauses. Relying on a period to separate the related clauses into two shorter sentences could lead to choppy writing. Using a comma would create an awkward run-on sentence. Note that writing independent clauses as two sentences separated by a period is correct. However, sometimes having two short sentences in a row can sound choppy. Using a semicolon to combine two clauses that are clearly connected can help avoid the choppiness and underscore the connection in meaning, as in the example below.
Correct: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview; appearances are important.
Correct but choppy: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview. Appearances are important.
Incorrect: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview, appearances are important.
A semicolon on its own can join two main clauses. But what if there is also a connecting word joining the clauses? Use a semicolon before a conjunctive adverb such as however or therefore, but do not use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction such as and, or, and but.
Semicolons to join items in a list
You can also use a semicolon to join items in a list when the items in the list already require commas. Semicolons help the reader distinguish between items in the list. By using semicolons in the example below, the reader can easily distinguish between the three sets of colors.
Correct: The color combinations we can choose from are black, white, and grey; green, brown, and black; or red, green, and brown.
Incorrect: The color combinations we can choose from are black, white, and grey, green, brown, and black, or red, green, and brown.
Correct the following sentences by adding semicolons as needed. In some cases, no correction may be needed.
- I did not notice that you were in the office I was behind the front desk all day.
- Do you want turkey, spinach, and cheese roast beef, lettuce, and cheese or ham, tomato, and cheese?
- Please close the blinds there is a glare on the screen.
- Unbelievably, no one was hurt in the accident.
- I cannot decide if I want my room to be green, brown, and purple green, black, and brown or green, brown, and dark red.
- Let’s go for a walk the air is so refreshing.
Colons to introduce a list
Use a colon to introduce a list of items. Introduce the list with an independent clause, as in the examples below.
- The team will tour three states: New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
- I have to take four classes this semester: Composition, Statistics, Ethics, and Italian.
Colons to introduce quotations
You can use a colon to introduce a quote as long as the words before the quote form a complete sentence in themselves, as in the following example.
Mark Twain said it best: “When in doubt, tell the truth.”
If a quote is longer than forty words, skip a line after the colon and indent the left margin of the quote five spaces. Long quotations, which are forty words or more, are called block quotations. Block quotations frequently appear in longer essays and research papers. Because quotations longer than forty words use line spacing and indentation to indicate a quote, quotation marks are not necessary, as in the example below.
My father always loved Mark Twain’s words:
There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.
Colons to introduce examples or explanations
Use a colon to introduce an example or to further explain an idea presented in the first part of a sentence. The first part of the sentence must always be an independent clause; that is, it must stand alone as a complete thought with a subject and verb. Do not use a colon after phrases like such as or for example.
Correct: Our company offers many publishing services: writing, editing, and reviewing.
Incorrect: Our company offers many publishing services, such as: writing, editing, and reviewing.
Capitalization after colons
Capitalize the first letter following a colon for a proper noun, the beginning of a quote, or the first letter of another independent clause. Do NOT capitalize if the information following the colon is not a complete sentence.
- Proper noun: We visited three countries: Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
- Beginning of a quote: My mother loved this line from Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”
- Two independent clauses: There are drawbacks to modern technology: My brother’s cell phone died and he lost a lot of phone numbers.
- Incorrect: The recipe is simple: Tomato, basil, and avocado.
Correct the following sentences by adding semicolons or colons as needed. In some cases, no semicolon or colon should be added.
- Don’t give up you never know what tomorrow brings.
- Our records show that the patient was admitted on March 9, 2010 January 13, 2010 and November 16, 2009.
- Allow me to introduce myself I am the greatest ice-carver in the world.
- Where I come from there are three ways to get to the grocery store by car, by bus, and by foot.
- Listen closely you will want to remember this speech.
- I have lived in Sedona, Arizona Baltimore, Maryland, and Knoxville, Tennessee.
- The boss’s message was clear Lateness would not be tolerated.
- Next semester, we will read some more contemporary authors, such as Vonnegut, Miller, and Orwell.
- My little sister said what we were all thinking “We should have stayed home.”
- Trust me I have done this before.