The Difference Between Colons and Semi-colons


Grammar is a great and vital thing in the English language but sometimes it can get confusing. So let’s start with the colon and the semi-colon.

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The Semi-colon (;)

First there’s the semi-colon. I love the semi-colon. It looks great, it serves wonderful functions but I’ve read different explanations of how to use it correctly. Some say it’s okay to use them to clear up confusing lists.

E.g. She picked up a few things on her way, shoes, coffee, a green, furry teddy; a packet of mints, a postcard and a rude but funny ornament.

There other explanation I’m aware of is that a semi-colon can be used to connect two related ideas in this way:

E.g. The town was quiet this time of year; the last tourists had left in June.

Both sides of the colon must be able to function independently. In other words if you replaced the semi-colon for a full stop and capitalized the letter after it you have two complete sentences.

This gets confusing when we look at the colon, which has similar uses.

The Colon (:)

The rule with this is that the first part of the sentence before the colon must make sense on its own and the second part must be an idea connected to the first part. In other words the second part is a continuation on the information given in the first part. So it’s very similar to the semi-colon but the main difference is that while the first part of the sentence has to be able to function on its own, the second part doesn’t.

E.g. The town was quiet this time of year: No more tourists.

The use of the colon in lists is to introduce a list rather than to clear up a confusing list.

E.g. She picked up a few things on her way: shoes, coffee, a green, furry teddy; a packet of mints, a postcard and a rude but funny ornament.

If you’re in any doubt about your grammar you can practise with online exercises. University websites are usually a good place to start. Click here for the Bristol University grammar exercises.

Having said all that, don’t forget that not only do different countries use different explanations of grammar but there is often dispute over the correct usages within an individual country. Add in to that regional variations and it can get very confusing. Try your best, take on board any comments from reviews but don’t get too hung up on this. If you make a mistake you can learn from it.

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7 thoughts on “The Difference Between Colons and Semi-colons

  1. It makes sense to me now!
    I bet I will forget all this the minute I start writing something :-).
    To me, grammar is all about ‘sounding right’ or some ‘gut feeling of something being right or wrong’. I can never remember any of these rules or definitions 😦

    • Me neither, that’s probably why I’m always looking them up. I got corrected by someone for misusing them so I thought I’d better check and clarify my own view of how to use them. I agree though, that going on a `gut feeling’ is usually the best way.

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