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12.17: Semicolons, Colons, Question Marks, and Exclamation Marks

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    In addition to periods and commas, another punctuation mark that you will encounter (though less often) is the semicolon (;). Like most punctuation marks, the semicolon can be used in a variety of ways but in generally it can only be used where a period could be used. However, a semicolon functions differently than a period or a comma. The semicolon indicates a break in the flow of a sentence, but also more of a relationship between the two ideas. Think of it more as a connector than a separator. When you encounter a semicolon while reading aloud, this represents a good place to pause and take a breath, just like a period.

    Semicolons to Join Two Independent Clauses

    You can use a semicolon to combine two closely related independent clauses without a coordinating or subordinating conjunction. 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. However, semicolons aren't used often, so use this choice only occasionally, such as when the logic that holds two ideas together is so obvious that it doesn't need to be indicated with a coordinator or subordinator. Another place to use a semicolon is when you use a transitional adverb to show the relationship between two ideas.

    Correct: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview; appearances are important.

    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.

    In this case, writing the independent clauses as two sentences separated by a period is correct. However, using a semicolon to combine the clauses can make your writing more interesting by creating a variety of sentence lengths and structures while preserving the flow of ideas.

    Correct: I felt I should wear formal clothes to the interview; however, the interview was on a Friday when people dress more casually.

    Correct but somewhat choppy: I felt I should wear formal clothes to the interview. However, the interview was on a Friday when people dress more casually.

    Incorrect: I felt I should wear formal clothes to the interview, however, the interview was on a Friday when people dress more casually.

    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.

    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.

    By using semicolons in this sentence, the reader can easily distinguish between the three sets of colors.


    Use semicolons to join two main clauses. Do not use semicolons with coordinating conjunctions, such as and, or, and but.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Exercise 1

    On your own sheet of paper, correct the following sentences by adding semicolons. If the sentence is correct as it is, write "OK."

    1. I did not notice that you were in the office I was behind the front desk all day.
    2. Do you want turkey, spinach, and cheese roast beef, lettuce, and cheese or ham, tomato, and cheese?
    3. Please close the blinds there is a glare on the screen.
    4. Unbelievably, no one was hurt in the accident.
    5. I cannot decide if I want my room to be green, brown, and purple green, black, and brown or green, brown, and dark red.
    6. Let’s go for a walk the air is so refreshing.


    The colon (:) is another punctuation mark used to indicate a full stop. Use a colon to introduce lists, quotes that are introduced by a complete sentence, examples, and explanations. You can also use a colon after the greeting in business letters and memos.

    • Dear Hiring Manager:
    • To: Human Resources
    • From: Deanna Dean

    Colons to Introduce a List

    Use a colon to introduce a list of items. Introduce the list with an independent clause.

    • 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 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.


    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 with phrase: The recipe is simple: Tomato, basil, and avocado.

    Correct with phrase: The recipe is simple: tomato, basil, and avocado.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Exercise 2

    On your own sheet of paper, correct the following sentences by adding semicolons or colons where needed. If the sentence does not need a semicolon or colon, write "OK."

    1. Don’t give up you never know what tomorrow brings.

    2. Our records show that the patient was admitted on March 9, 2010 January 13, 2010 and November 16, 2009.

    3. Allow me to introduce myself I am the greatest ice-carver in the world.

    4. Where I come from there are three ways to get to the grocery store by car, by bus, and by foot.

    5. Listen closely you will want to remember this speech.

    6. I have lived in Sedona, Arizona Baltimore, Maryland and Knoxville, Tennessee.

    7. The boss’s message was clear Lateness would not be tolerated.

    8. Next semester, we will read some more contemporary authors, such as Vonnegut, Miller, and Walker.

    9. My little sister said what we were all thinking “We should have stayed home.”

    10. Trust me I have done this before.

    Question Marks

    A question mark (?) should end a question. But sometimes we are so used to putting periods at the ends of our sentence, that in the heat of writing an essay, we accidentally place periods at the ends of questions as well. And sometimes, the construction of a sentence can make it unclear whether the sentence is a question or not, so we may just default to using the period. This section (and the video) explain when to use a question mark in the more sophisticated and formal writing you do in college.

    Direct Questions

    If a sentence is constructed in the form of a question, it usually begins with a question word, such as is, are, did, does, do, where, who, why, when, what, was, were, would, could, or how. If a sentence begins with one of these words, it should end with a question mark. (If you have a question about the construction of questions -- or interrogative sentences -- see "Questions and Negative Statements" in section 12.3.


    • Why was Galileo put in jail after he declared the earth revolved around the sun?
    • Who was at the party?
    • Did you get all of your homework done before you went?

    Tag Questions

    Tag questions are questions that are "tagged on" to a declarative statement. It may be unclear whether to place a question mark at the end of these sentences, but you should because the question ends the sentence. These types of questions are less likely to appear in formal expository writing but may very well appear in creative writing, particularly in dialog.


    • You are working during summer break, aren't you?
    • I can't remember what I came into this room for. It was to gather laundry, wasn't it?

    Rhetorical and Hypothetical Questions

    Rhetorical and hypothetical questions are much more likely to appear in expository writing. Rhetorical questions are used to draw in a reader to a main idea or to indirectly address the reader while transitioning to a new idea. You don't expect anyone to actually answer a rhetorical question (except for maybe you at the end of your essay). Hypothetical questions give an example that hasn't actually happened. Rhetorical and hypothetical questions should have question marks at the end.


    • How much longer can we ignore the effects of climate change?
    • Can't we all just get along?
    • Why must countries fight with each other?
    • If I were to move to the Bay Area, would my pay support my lifestyle?

    String of Questions

    This is when additional questions are added onto a direct question. In writing, these would generally appear in dialog. Because of this more casual and, perhaps, artful situation, you have a little more leeway with capitalization. However, you would want to place a question mark at the end of each additional question.


    May I sleep overnight at Kim's? Can I stay until 10 p.m.? Until 9?

    Indirect Questions

    Many times indirect questions begin with the words "I wonder." They do not begin with question words. Because of this, and because they don't follow a question sentence structure, they should not take question marks at the end. They are really just declarative statements about questions, so they should take a period at the end.


    • I wonder why people can't solve their problems in a constructive manner.
    • Sierra wondered what college she would be accepted to.

    Direct-Indirect Questions

    In this type of question, the sentence begins with a declarative statement but ends with a direct question. Because they end with direct questions, the sentences should end ith question marks.


    • Donuts are delicious, so why do they have to be so bad for you?
    • The question is, are we going to get there on time?
    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Exercise 3

    Edit the following paragraph for question marks according to the above guidelines.

    Eight-year-old Johnny was reading a book about dinosaurs, and it brought up so many questions in his head. He wondered, what is the biggest dinosaur. How did dinosaurs fly? How is it that there could be land, sea, and air dinosaurs. They all seemed to be similar whereas the animals we have now all seem so different. He hoped he could get his parents to go on a vacation to go dinosaur bone digging in Idaho. He wondered if his parents would say yes. Was it too much to ask. Johnny decided to read some more before asking his parents.

    Exclamation Marks

    Exclamation marks show excitement or emphasize emotion. In effect, they show tone of voice, which can be difficult to convey in writing. Have you ever written a communication -- especially a text or an email -- in which your tone was misunderstood? This can happen easily when using sarcasm. Although exclamation marks don't necessarily convey sarcasm, they can be used to indicate that tone of voice. A use that creates emphasis would be with imperative (command) sentences, in which someone is emphasizing loudly (perhaps yelling) that they really want someone to do something. More often they indicate excitement. Exclamation marks are rare in expository and college writing, which is more on the formal and less emotional side. Exclamation marks are used more often in personal communications and sometimes advertising.


    • This is a fantastic dessert!
    • Wow! That was an amazing play!
    • Get out of the way!

    Writing at Work

    Be careful when using exclamation points at work, even in instant messages and email. In the workplace, exclamation marks can be seen as too casual or as unprofessional. Never use them in a formal business letter, but -- depending on your audience, message, and purpose, you may use them occasionally in a casual email or instant message to convey enthusiasm (see "Rhetorical Analysis" in Chapter 2.7). It's best to avoid sarcasm at work, so don't use exclamation marks in an "ironic" way.

    All of this assumes, of course, that you are not writing marketing content at work. Such writing is more like creative writing, so it is possible you would use exclamation marks in this context.

    Contributors and Attributions



    • How to use a semicolon - Emma Bryce. Authored by: TED-Ed. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube Licesne.
    • Colons and Semicolons. Authored by: The School of Life. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
    • Question marks. Authored by: Schmoop. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

    This page last updated on June 8, 2020.