How to Use a Semicolon the Correct Way

How to Use a Semicolon the Correct Way
Photo: Ruth B, Shutterstock

Colons and semicolons are the indie rock of punctuation marks. They’re not mainstream-popular like the period. They aren’t obvious and eager-to-please like the exclamation mark. They’re not everywhere like the comma. But the colon and the semicolon have passion. They’re quirky, snobby, and sometimes prickly. These I-was-using-them-before-they-were-cool punctuation marks are like Jay and Michael Aston of Gene Loves Jezebel: They’re brothers, but they not twins, and they do not always get along.

The right way to use a colon: Two little dots that can say so much

The colon has a number of fiddly uses. It introduces an item or list, separates closely related independent clauses, introduces longer quotations, and introduces bulleted or numbered lists. It’s also frequently used following a greeting in more formal correspondence.

A colon can be used in place of a period or a comma and conjunction between two independent clauses when the second sentence emphasises, illustrates, or explains the first.

I didn’t end up going to Sisters of Mercy show: I was out of eyeliner.

When used this way, you can “read” a colon as something like “because” or “thus.”

Here is what it looks like when a colon is used to introduce a list:

Neutral Milk Hotel has three main influences: early Pink Floyd, The Minutemen, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

A colon can be used after “the following” or “as follows” but not after “for example,” “including,” “such as,” or “that is.” In those cases, use a comma.

A colon is often used after a speaker’s name to present dialogue or a quotation:

Like The Mountain Goats’John Darnielle said in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”: “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you.”

When you are quoting something longer, use a colon. Do the same when you are presenting a list that is numbered or uses bullet-points, as follows:

Here is the track listing of Big Black’s seminal 1986 album Atomizer:

1) Jordan, Minnesota

2) Passing Complexion

3) Big Money

4) Kerosene

5) Bad Houses

6) Fists of Love

7) Stinking Drunk

8) Bazooka Joe

9) Strange Things

10) Cables (Live)

People sometimes use a colon after a greeting in correspondence, famously after “To Whom it May Concern.” This usage was cool in the past, but now it seems overly formal, stuffy, and try-hard enough to be ironic.

Dear NME: I am still angry about your lukewarm review of The Stone Roses’ first album.

All the cool people add a spaces after a colon. Capitalising after a colon is not cool, except in a few situations. If you’re introducing a list, capitalise the first word after the colon only if it’s a proper noun.

If the second phrase after the colon can stand as a complete sentence, you generally don’t capitalise it, but some people maintain that you can capitalise it if it’s a longer sentence. (Some people think Pablo Honey is a better album than OK Computer, but that doesn’t make them right.) [Editor’s note: This site’s style is to capitalise standalone phrases after a colon, so. Also, OK Computer is overrated.]

If you want to dig as deeply into the colon as you dig into the crates at your local used record shop, consider the double colon. It looks like this: “::” and is used in analogies, famously on SAT tests. When writing an analogy, instead of writing: “W is to X as Y is to Z,” you can write “W : Z :: Y : Z” As in the following analogy:

Dag Nasty : 1986 :: My Chemical Romance : 2003.

Double colons are also used in some programming languages too, but I can’t tell you how because I am not a nerd.

How to use a semicolon: We should probably get rid of them entirely

The semicolon has three uses: linking independent but closely related clauses, combining sentences with a conjunctive adverb followed by a comma, and replacing commas in lists if the comma would be confusing. Semicolons are not used to link an independent and a dependent clause like the colon or the comma.

If periods are too mainstream for you, you can use either a colon or a semicolon to separate two closely related independent clauses. It gets a little hair-splitty when you try to determine which to use when though. This mixed-up state of affairs is partly because these two marks tend to be used differently in the U.K. and the U.S., but overall, the semicolon reads as a little more conversational. The colon is a bit more formal. Compare the following:

That was the best show ever: Galaxie 500 played with its original lineup.

That was the best show ever; Galaxie 500 played with its original lineup.

Subtle, right? But if you’re into semicolons, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity.

Things clear up a lot when you get into conjunctive adverbs like “moreover,” “nevertheless,” “however,” and “also.” These should include a semicolon, as follows:

She put on a Moby CD; consequently, I asked her to leave my home.

The semicolon’s real starring moment comes when you are presenting a list that would be confusing if you separated it with commas, as in the following:

The lineup of Joy Division was Ian Curtis, vocals; Bernard Sumner, guitar and keyboard; Peter Hook, bass; and drummer Stephen Morris.

A final, important note on colons

If you are old enough to understand the musical references I have been making, you should schedule a colonoscopy every five years.

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