From My Desk To Yours – 30th Edition

PUTTING SEMICOLONS AND COLONS IN THEIR PLACE
By: Penny, EzineArticles Managing Editor

Ever get that feeling when you’re writing that a sentence needs just a little something extra to make it cohesive and complete? You know it needs some kind of punctuation to bring home the point, but you can’t decide between a comma, a semicolon, a colon or some other punctuation mark to get the job done.

Well, if you have, you’re not alone. It happens all the time.

To clear the air of mystery around these punctuation marks and decide how and where they fit, we put together this quick guide to putting semicolons and colons in their place.

Interestingly enough, colons and semicolons were originally introduced as a way to represent spots to add pauses in speech that were a little longer than a comma and a little shorter than a period. Now they’ve each taken on their own meaning.

  • Basics of Semicolons
     

    Semicolons are commonly used in two ways. They either separate items in a list or they separate two independent clauses in the same sentence.

    First, let’s look at how they appear as part of a list:

    • When individual elements of a list have commas, separate the items in the list with semicolons instead of commas. This will commonly appear when you’re listing dates or cities.
       

      Incorrect: Over the past 30 years, the three cities that have received the most rainfall in the United States are Mobile, Alabama, Pensacola, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana.

      Correct: Over the past 30 years, the three cities that have received the most rainfall in the United States are Mobile, Alabama; Pensacola, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana.

    Also, use semicolons to separate independent clauses in these three circumstances:

    1. When there’s no conjunction (ex. and, but, or) separating the clauses. If you use a conjunction, a comma will do the job. If not, use a semicolon.
       

      Incorrect: Coffee and tea are stimulants, they’re both options to wake us up when we’re tired.

      Correct: Coffee and tea are stimulants; they’re both options to wake us up when we’re tired.

    2. When the clauses themselves have commas, like as part of a list. Adding an additional comma into a compound sentence that has a series of commas can get confusing. Separate the clauses with a semicolon instead to make the compound sentence clear.
       

      Incorrect: You should watch the weather so you can dress appropriately while camping, and make sure you bring a sleeping bag, lantern and bug spray with you.

      Correct: You should watch the weather so you can dress appropriately while camping; and make sure you bring a sleeping bag, lantern and bug spray with you.

    3. When the clauses are separated by a parenthetical expression, like a conjunctive adverb (ex. however, meanwhile, consequently, etc.).
       

      Incorrect: Alexander was a Trojan, Achilles, on the other hand, was an Achaean.

      Correct: Alexander was a Trojan; Achilles, on the other hand, was an Achaean.

  • Basics of Colons
     

    Colons also have a variety of uses. They include starting lists, starting quotations and a variety of special cases.

    1. Colons Starting Lists
       

      Use a colon before a list when the list is preceded by a complete independent clause. Don’t use a colon to separate a preposition from its objects or a verb from its compliments. This is a relatively common mistake.

      Incorrect: For the recipe, you will need: flour, baking soda, baking powder, butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract. (The colon separates the verb need from its components.)

      Correct: First, go to the grocery store to acquire all the ingredients: flour, baking soda, baking powder, butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract.

    2. Colons Starting Quotations
       

      Use colons to introduce formal or lengthy quotations. They can also be used when a quotation isn’t preceded by a “he said/she said” clause.

      Correct: Dickens wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

      Correct: Derek flipped the switch on the loudspeaker: “I have a few announcements to make.”

    3. Colons in Special Cases
       

      There are numerous ways that colons are used with special meanings. Think about:

      • Measurements of time (ex. 4:15pm, 7:45am, etc.)
      • Subtitles (ex. One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, 2 Minute Approval Tips: Deliver On The Article Title, etc.)
      • Salutations In Business Letters (ex. Dear Sir: or Dear Ms Smith:)
      • Labels On Important Ideas (ex. Notice: or Important:)

These are just the basics. We have plenty more advanced punctuation tips to cover, but we’ll save that for a future post or the comments section below. Any questions?

36 Comments »


1
Wade Coye writes:

Although language is fluid (it changes with its generation and users), punctuation still makes a big difference in writing. I’m reminded on the example teachers used to put on the board to illustrate the importance of commas:

“A panda walks into a bar and eats, shoots, and leaves”

Comment provided June 8, 2011 at 9:08 AM

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Lisa Mason writes:

Have you ever read Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies? It’s in the theme of that example and you will certainly not forget it. Great book! :)

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A few years ago, I heard Lynn Truss reading in person from ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’. I have an autographed copy.
I agree – a great book and a fun read!
I guess I’m a Great Big Meany, because I’m a grammar snob, too.

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Lisa Mason writes:

“Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” is based off of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. If you liked one, you will like the other. I have both but I do wish I had an autographed copy. :/

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Ah! Thanks for the clarification, Lisa. :)
I hadn’t heard of it, and misread yours to be a quotation from somewhere.
I’ll look for the book – do you have the author? Though I’ll Google it no problem.
AJM

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Lisa Mason writes:

Oh yes, it’s June Casagrande.

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2
Wolfgang writes:

Thank you Penny for clearing this one up, it does get confusing at times; but I do try to get the punctuation right.

Comment provided June 8, 2011 at 10:16 AM

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3
Lisa Mason writes:

Good one. When I edit, I see people overuse and under-use these all the time!

Comment provided June 8, 2011 at 11:12 AM

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4
Peter Atkinson writes:

I never heard of using semicolons in a list of cities before. Is this an American English thing?

Comment provided June 8, 2011 at 11:49 AM

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Raj writes:

Peter I fully agree with you! That semicolon in a list of cities looks totally odd! Where did that came from? I’ve the same query: Is this an American English thing?

Penny, are you listening?

In fact, as per the description of it’s usage, the semicolon should’ve been used in the place of all the commas.

But, of course, I agree with the rest.

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5
ken jefferies writes:

Now I am 56 years old and everything seems to have changed since then.I had 5 english qualifications so I did used to know what was right.Obviously I have to learn the new ways,though it does go against the grain.Now in one of the examlples you show as correct a semi colon before and.To me that is sheer bad grammar and should never be done.The same with but ;any punctuation preceding was never to be seen.Am I led to believe that grammar has now gone.Semi colon was used where you needed a new sentence but the make up of the sentence did not warrant a full stop.Now the article is preaching to put them where a comma would do..In the tutoring above the semi colon is not used to pause for breath and to be able to add the inflection to the second part of the sentence:which the author intended.
The old way definitely had more meaning and added more character into a sentence.
Now you will pick holes in this article and I would pick holes in the so called;new way! However have to change to please the new school of thought.I do not think I can bring myself to put punctuation marks before the word and;ditto the word but.See how the semi colon worked in that sentence,pause for breath and emphasise the word ditto.

Comment provided June 8, 2011 at 12:22 PM

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Lisa Mason writes:

I assume you are putting the punctuation in your reply in effect to mock the parts of the post that you disagree with… I’m not sure but it was incredibly difficult to read. After reading it 4 times, I think you may have misunderstood this post.

They don’t say to put the punctuation before “but” or “and”. It says:

When there’s no conjunction (ex. and, but, or) separating the clauses.

I really don’t see any changes in these rules or those of years past. Some style guides will vary such as AP Style, Yahoo!, AMA, MLA Handbook, etc. but the fundamentals of grammar are typically the same.

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6
ken jefferies writes:

Sorry lisa.I said they put a semi colon in front of the word and ,in one of their correct examples and they have.Please read through and you will see I am right.As to hard to understand I have read yours four times and still find it hard to be totally sure about what you are saying.I think you are just having a go at me.I did say I am the one who has to change and there is nowhere I mocked anybody.Simply,I put my view point ,as you seem to be putting yours.Your post seems to be mocking me( with your first sentence.).I would not dream of doing that to you Lisa .You are expressing a viewpoint and I repect that,
All I did was set up a thread of discussion and of course not everybody is going to agree with me.Could I ask what is the reason for the colon after “it says”.Now I am not saying it is wrong but I would not do it.You see the truth with most of punctuation,is that the author had some intention about the way they wanted it read.We may think it is wrong but maybe we have not understood their intention.
Really it is down to the person in charge as to what they see as correct.(EzineArticles in this case)It is their choice and again, I was humble in saying I have to change.I mocked nobody.

Comment provided June 8, 2011 at 5:04 PM

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Lisa Mason writes:

I did read Ken and it was not my intention to offend you in any way. I have been a member of the EzineArticles community for many years and I respect the site and all of its members. I stated that I wasn’t sure what you meant and I made an assumption and asked if that was correct.

Your reply has semicolons where there does not need to be any, so it looked like you were doing it to try to prove a point- that you thought theirs was incorrect. If you’re doing it because you think this post is telling you that is some “new way” of doing it, then you have misunderstood as the punctuation usage in your original post was incorrect.

Penny’s example that you refer to is, in fact, correct usage of grammar but this is not a new rule.

“You should watch the weather so you can dress appropriately while camping; and make sure you bring a sleeping bag, lantern and bug spray with you.”

The semicolon is there to separate the two clauses because the second clause contains commas in it. Penny also explains it in full detail above the samples.

You say, “All I did was set up a thread of discussion and of course not everybody is going to agree with me.”

I was not disagreeing with you at all. I was participating in your discussion by telling you that I thought you may have misunderstood the usage points made in this blog post. If you start submitting to EzineArticles with colons, commas and semicolons wherever you feel like placing them, you’re going to get them kicked back for edits.

Then you point out an example of grammar use in my own post:

“Could I ask what is the reason for the colon after “it says”.”

You certainly may ask and I’d be happy to give you an answer. I was quoting a piece of Penny’s post as an example, so I used the colon to separate that from my own words. If you “would not do it”, then you would be incorrect. Looking back, she even provides an example of this in her post.

Basics of Colons, point #2: Colons Starting Quotations

If you reread that and its example, you will see why I used the colon after “it says”.

You accuse me of “having a go” at you and I most certainly was not. I do not have to explain myself as a member of this community as I know there are others here who know that I am nothing but friendly and helpful. Sometimes words can be taken out of context when read on a page where we cannot hear the author’s inflection. Therefore, if you interpreted something I said incorrectly, then I apologize.

That being said, your post was riddled with grammar mistakes and being how you misunderstood Penny’s post as well as my own reply, I can understand there may be a comprehension issue going on. In light of that, again I apologize if you took something I said the wrong way. My intentions were only to help you/ converse with you.

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7
leon Noone writes:

G’Day Penny,
I may have mentioned this before. If I have, forgive me. If not….

The best book I know about punctuation is ,”Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Guide to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss. Among its many virtues is the best explanation I know about when and how to use apostrophes.

Regards

Leon

Comment provided June 8, 2011 at 7:38 PM

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8
Shirley Slick writes:

Unless grammar as changed a great deal over the years, your “correct” example with a semicolon after Alabama is NOT correct. What follows a semicolon needs to be a complete thought.

Comment provided June 9, 2011 at 1:02 AM

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Lisa Mason writes:

No. It is correct the way she has written it.

Commas are needed to separate city from state and to separate items in a series.

The important need here is to separate each city-state set from other city-state sets, so we use semicolons for that job.

Although each city also has to be separate from its state, this reason is slightly less important and therefore can be handled by the relatively weaker comma. (source: http://www.ucmo.edu/PreBuilt/documents/TheSemicolon.pdf)

Another example:
Within two years we visited Dallas, Texas; Minneapolis, Minnesota;
Clearwater, Florida; and Park Ridge, Illinois.

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thomas bodetti writes:

I believe that this topic is a great example of what they used to call target fixation, meaning that when one cannot see the forest for the trees, they often end up tripping over the roots of a language.

Pardon the pun.

The next update in Google is due out at the end of this month or mid month after the next round of tests.

Upon which time I know that all this (speculation) about punctuation, grammar, grade school focus on things that do not matter, will be found to be a great tragedy in all the sense of the word.

This is a business, (meaning google) they do not care about punctuation, nor grammar, what they care about is profits, pure and simple, if you do not understand that about search engines, you will fail in this forest for the trees scenario.

It is just that simple, get your priorities straight before the next update or you will sadly find that everything you “though” you were doing right turned out to be “wrong”

My business is consulting and that includes fortune 500 companies that spend millions in search engine advertising fees every month, I can tell you that our data suggests that EzineArticles is off base with this type of content.

However that is what makes this Internet world so great you are free to fly about, worrying about comma, or is that coma, oh well, now I am confused too.

The end result here is that you will find that what you thought you should have done before was the thing you should have done this time, and the thing you did this time was the wrong thing to do because you failed to understand that business and the corporate check book is at the bottom of every decision this “business makes”, now how do we end this, should we worry about having blinders on and not knowing where to put the right character and where to end the sentence?

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9
elizabeth (bet) writes:

Thanks for this blog. I have been making mistakes, I see.

Comment provided June 9, 2011 at 2:01 AM

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10
ken jefferies writes:

Hi Lisa it is you missing the point.tThe point was that 30 years ago my usage was correct.I repeat,it is me who has to change.It will take some time after 30 years.Lets leave it there Lisa,it could go on forever and I am very tired of it.I am going to go away and humbly learn the new ways.Best Wishes and Kind Regards:From New Student.Now where did I put that 9,000;for the Uni’.Joke!(the colon and semi at the end there.Yeah!I got to o explane everithing.Sh-t!Look at my speling:it gone to pot!I is gone to bed)LOVE YA’

Comment provided June 9, 2011 at 5:11 PM

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11

Thank you for those tips. I would have made some of those mistakes in the examples above.

Still so much to learn with article marketing although this is basic stuff.

Lisa

Comment provided June 10, 2011 at 7:25 PM

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12

Great article. Great examples.

Comment provided July 18, 2011 at 11:38 AM

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13
Sandra Anderson writes:

Thanks! I really needed this tutorial! I learned from you great examples!

Sandra

Comment provided July 18, 2011 at 12:49 PM

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14
Mark Demers writes:

I`ve been reading some of the comments and it`s nice to see you reply back when an answer is warranted.
I think I might write better “en francais”.
I started at a french immersion school and just that make writing in English a little confusing.
This post clears up many of my outstanding questions about punctuation and I will refer to it whenever I have any problems.
I always wondered if a colon was needed in this type of sentence that you used above- Derek flipped the switch on the loudspeaker: “I have a few announcements to make.”
This makes total sense to me now and I appreciate the help.
Semi colons were something I avoided, I always preferred to separate the ideas by making two sentences from them instead of putting them together in to one sentence. This helped me to avoid run on sentences and I found it easier to do.
This post will help me shorten my articles from now on .
Thanks, have a great day.

Comment provided July 18, 2011 at 1:10 PM

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15
Jeff Wilson writes:

Thanks! The post was helpful and informative. I’m sure most of us hesitate when we consider breakin’ out the semi colon. …I’m surprised the retired grade school teacher didn’t learn to always add a space after a period and comma. …Being the only exception I can think of.

Comment provided July 18, 2011 at 3:39 PM

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16
Brian Menard writes:

Thanks for the great information. I’ve been avoiding using semicolons and converting my thoughts into two separate sentences. It’s been a long time since I’ve done much writing. I’ll be checking out other similar threads in the hopes of getting up to speed again.

Comment provided July 18, 2011 at 4:35 PM

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17
Martha Lipson writes:

Thanks for the post; I’ve been having some problems with placing my semicolons and colons, but this post has given me a much better understanding of how to use them.

Comment provided July 18, 2011 at 5:33 PM

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18
Joseph Dabon writes:

It’s veritably like a pinch of salt to season a broth. Small things can really mean a lot. Thanks for the tips. They are great.

Comment provided July 18, 2011 at 8:42 PM

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19
Rick Carruth writes:

Informative article, as I am frequently guilty of the wrong usage. I bought a couple of books on the subject of grammar recently but can’t seem to find time to read them. Heck, I may have commited a blunder or two in this simple comment.

Comment provided July 18, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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20

I think this is a timely post. It is disconcerting when the prose you are reading does not flow. Too often when poor punctuation is criticised, the critic is often accused of being “high brow”. May be this is a symptom of where people in general rate good punctuation.

Comment provided July 19, 2011 at 1:20 AM

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21
Martin Helm writes:

As a writer of UK rather than US English I am always amused at how the two languages differ, albeit in sometimes subtle ways.

The US convention of separating hours and minutes with a colon contrasts with the UK convention of using a full stop – which I believe you call a period.

We also avoid the Paris, France; Paris, Texas semi-colon issue by simply writing ‘Paris’ and letting readers work out from the context which one we are referring to.

This can, of course, be a little confusing since there are at least 13 towns in the UK called ‘Newport’. I never said it was a logical language!

As an aside, I think Thomas Bodetti is confusing good English with what appeals to search engines. The two are entirely separate: there is no link, causal or otherwise. A sentence can be either, or both, or neither.

We should not base the way we write on the whims of search engines, any more than we should adopt txt spk just because some communications devices used to ration the number of characters they made available.

This topic is not about artificially appealing to Google and its chums, it’s about writing authoritative articles which build respect.

Just my two penn’orth – a UK expression!

Comment provided July 19, 2011 at 3:12 AM

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Thomas Bodetti writes:

Good points, my point was that I feel that the response from EzineArticles along with several other publishing websites, has been an over reaction, based on poor ratings received from google, so in that context, it would make sense, to compare the ideas of “grading” harder, when in the past, almost anything was acceptable. Now with the idea that Google Devalued EzineArticles in many areas, resulting in net loss of traction in the Search engine rankings and analysis is appropriate.

I believe that focusing too broadly on the idea that google would prefer functionally, correct english in articles, this idea is an assumption that just does not hold water as a compelling argument.

We have changed in the way we read online documents are not read the same way as books are read, comparing those two very different mediums is not comparing apples and oranges, if this were a scientific experiment it would be deemed to be a failure due to an incorrect analysis of the situation and having no control group in which to compare the results obtained.

Only time will tell if it is correct to compare search engine results with punctuation and English as a language, however I pose this question, would we be having this discussion had Google not changed the way it ranked EZA?

That is my point, before there was little in the way of a value attached to content that was approved, as long as it made at least some sense, it was approved, however that has changed, now ask yourself why that change was made?

Then you will have a better understanding of my approach to this subject.

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22
Edward Viljoen writes:

More delightful than getting punctuation correct, is reading punctuation fans debating correct usage. I am grinning all over as a result of reading this comment thread. More!!! Please.

Comment provided July 19, 2011 at 11:54 AM

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23
Joseph Dabon writes:

Different strokes for different folks. But I really cannot see how a content can be good if it is full of misspelled words and wrong grammar. I would not even bother to go the the next sentence if I see that the first few lines are written awfully.

If we argue that content is the prime consideration over how an article is written presupposes that the internet reading crowd is full of people who can effectively connect dots to form a picture. if they do, am sure different readers will have different pictures.

Comment provided July 19, 2011 at 9:05 PM

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24
Joseph Dabon writes:

Punctuation marks can be a little tricky. But I’d rather read a paragraph with them in their rightful places than be depressed with long-winding sentences with nothing but commas all over the place.

Comment provided July 19, 2011 at 9:15 PM

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25
Joseph Dabon writes:

Well, these Google guys may have been English 101 flunkers. if I write I write for myself, not for Google.

Comment provided July 19, 2011 at 9:30 PM

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