Posted in Mini-Lessons

The Confusing Colon and Sneaky Semicolon

The colon and semicolon are two often unused (or misused) punctuation marks. One reason that these two lovely punctuation marks are often misused or not used at all is that they are frequently misunderstood. Or, they are used to make emoticons, but that’s an entirely different post!  😉 🙂


The Colon

The colon is a very useful punctuation mark. (Go ahead and giggle. The poor colon is often the butt of people’s jokes.) The colon is not used too frequently in fiction writing, but it is often used in articles, essays, and blog posts. No matter what you are writing, it is important to know how to properly use punctuation.

Rule 1: Use a colon between two independent clauses (sentences) if the second clause is a further explanation or clarification of the first.

Example: Janie had a very successful year: she won three awards and was nominated for two others.

In that example, the second clause is explaining why Janie’s year was so successful.

Rule 2: Conventional Uses

Colons are also used for things such as time, ratios, title/subtitle, and salutations.


The Semicolon

Writers sometimes disagree about using the semicolon in fiction. Some love it; others think it has no place in fiction writing. The semicolon is my personal favorite of all the punctuation marks. It is an elegant way to join two closely related clauses, and it offers a less abrupt shift when used with conjunctive adverbs such as therefore and however.

Rule 1: Use a semicolon between two closely related independent clauses.

Example: Janie had a very successful year; she hopes next year will be even more successful.

In this example, the second clause is related to the first but not an expansion or explanation, which is in contrast to the earlier example of colon use.

Rule 2: A semicolon can be used in the place of a period when a conjunctive adverb joins two independent clauses.

(Side note: Conjunctive adverbs are words like therefore, thus, moreover, and however.)

Example: Janie has had a very successful year; therefore, she plans to take a long vacation.

In this example, the word therefore is the conjunctive adverb that joins the two independent clauses.

Rule 3: A semicolon should be used to separate items in a series that have internal punctuation.

Example: Some great places to visit are Harlan, Kentucky; Rock Hill, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia.

In that example, the city and state are separated by commas, so to separate the unit of city and state, the writer should use a semicolon.

Another example: This month I celebrated my brother’s birthday, which was last week; my best friend’s wedding, which was very fun; and Halloween, which was a little disappointing because it rained.

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