The once-popular colon/semicolon key on our computer keyboards is, I fear, gathering dust. And while it’s probably a good thing that in the twenty-first century we favour minimalist punctuation, let’s not let fashion and flavour blind us to the important tasks these punctuation marks can perform. The colon and semi-colon are not there just to help you create emoticons; they’re an important part of any writer’s tool kit. They’re signposts that help your readers navigate complex content and properly comprehend the subtleties of your text. When you master these two marks, you’ll be able to write more in a more confident, clear and compelling way.
The colon is the formal elder statesman of this pair of punctuation marks. It has authority, weight and gravitas. Its assertive nature helps you make your point more strongly without sounding like you’re shouting, and it’s especially useful in formal documents and lists.
The colon performs tasks that no other punctuation mark can, such as…
- 1A colon introduces material, including:
- 2It links a book title to its subtitle.
Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation.
- 3It links the name of a character to their line of dialogue in a script.
Colon: I am a strong, sturdy mark. I refuse to be retired.
- 3A colon can also be used to summarise or contrast any phrase that precedes it.
Colons and semicolons share one important thing: a key on a keyboard.
It was one hour before my deadline: not long enough to produce a Pulitzer-worthy blog post.
Xavier Herbert, the famous Australian author, hated the semicolon so much he sawed the key off his typewriter. Poet Maurya Simon loves it so much she writes verse about it, describing it as ‘a sperm forever frozen in its yearning for an ovum’. As Grammar Factory’s Chair of the Save the Semicolon Committee, I believe that, like the colon, the semi can do important work.
1. Linking related ideas
When writing, there are a plethora of options for grouping our ideas. We can use two sentences, one after the other. We can use ‘and’ to join the two sentences. Or we can use a semicolon.
The news about the imminent removal of the semicolon from Apple’s keyboards went viral; the sale of PCs increased 100% overnight.
A semicolon can link two closely related ideas when each could happily be a sentence all by itself.* This creates a closer link than separating them with a full stop, and can have more impact than using the word ‘and’ between them. With a semicolon, the rhythm is easy, and the causal connection between the two ideas is clear.
However, you must never use ‘and’ with a semi. The following is wrong:
The news about the imminent removal of the semicolon from Apple’s keyboards went viral; and the sale of PCs increased 100% overnight.
The reason for this is that as soon as the second idea begins with an ‘and’, it can’t stand on its own as an independent sentence. (Yes, there are cases when you can begin sentences with conjunctions like ‘and’ and ‘but’, but I’ll save those for another post.) If you want to use ‘and’, then please use a comma instead of a semi.
So what can you do if you want to link two ideas when one of them isn’t a complete sentence?* In this case, use connecting words such as however, moreover or nevertheless along with a semicolon and comma.
She loved writing about punctuation; however, that didn’t mean she always punctuated perfectly.
2. Clearing up complex lists
Another important job for the semi is separating items in complex lists.
In a simple list, you use a comma to separate each list item.
He likes commas, full stops and apostrophes.
However, in a complex list, things become somewhat more … complex.
He likes to use a variety of punctuation marks: full stops to end a sentence, except for questions and exclamations; apostrophes to indicate possession, except in the case of its; and semicolons, his favourite punctuation mark, to link closely related ideas.
In this list, you can see that each item is quite long and includes commas itself. If you then tried to use commas to separate each of the list items, it would take several reads to figure out where each item ends and the next begins. And a good writer should never make a reader do that.
So don’t be afraid to use the colon and the semicolon. Some may call them old-fashioned, especially the subtle semi, but remember – sooner or later, everything old is new again.
*Not sure whether a group of words can be a standalone sentence? Check to see whether it has both a subject (the person or object doing something) and a verb (what they are doing). If not, it isn’t a complete sentence.