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Friday, May 15, 2009

Colons and Semi-Colons

Colons and Semi-colons

Colons and semi-colons often confuse people when they are writing. Interestingly however, people usually don’t’ experience any confusion over colons and semi-colons when reading. That’s because we know how to interpret the meaning when we see it (implicit knowledge), but don’t necessarily know the rules that govern their use (explicit knowledge).

Personally, I never try to recall any specific rules I may have learned at some point in some boring English class when I’m writing. I just think the words in my head and listen to how they sound to direct my choice of punctuation. There are a couple of rules that are like old faithful standbys that come to the forefront of my mind when it comes to the difference between colons and semi-colons though, so I’ll share them with you here.

A colon is 2 dots on top of each other and it looks like this (:). That’s just what it is – a colon. A semi-colon is kind of like a colon, but not complete – it’s a “semi” version of the real thing. It looks like this (;).

So here’s the deal: you use a semi-colon between 2 complete sentences that are similar in meaning so that you read it like a gentle pause, not a stop. (A colon would indicate a full stop; a semi-colon however, indicates a “semi” version of the real thing). Sure, you could use a period instead and create 2 separate sentences, but that would read a little more choppy and stunted than if you used the semi-colon. The use of the semi-colon allows you to emphasize the fact that the 2 sentences are so closely related that you really don’t want to separate them by placing a period at the end of each one. Think of them as twins – individual in many ways, but inseparable.

(By the way, using a semi-colon makes me feel confident and authoritative because I’m using long, sophisticated sentences!)

Check out this example:
Complete sentence #1: My children’s father is Japanese.
Complete sentence #2: They speak Japanese at home but not in front of their friends.
Use of a semi-colon: My children’s father is Japanese; they speak Japanese at home but not in front of their friends.

Can you see how using a semi-colon emphasizes the relationship between the 2 sentences more than if you left them separate and simple?

As for colons – the general rule of thumb I follow is that a colon announces that I am about to present an example or more information about something. It says to your reader: “Here’s what I’m talking about.” It also says I am about to present a list to you.

Check out these examples:
The vitamins that promote healthy hair growth include: Vitamin B5, B6, B12, and Biotin.
The following vitamins promote healthy hair growth: Vitamin B5, B6, B12 and Biotin.
These are the vitamins that promote healthy hair growth: B5, B6, B12 and Biotin.

Notice how the colon comes after these phrases:
…include
The following
These are…


Other phrases that are usually followed by a colon include:
These (things)…
Such as…
As follows
There are …

There are other times you use a colon such as in the use of time (12:15) or after the salutation in a formal letter (to whom it may concern:), but I’m not talking about that stuff right now. Right now my focus is on basic writing.

Just for the fun of it, why don’t you go back through this article and find all the colons and semi-colons and see if they match up to what I’ve said about them. Have fun!

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