How to Use a Semicolon Without Screwing Up

Colon and semicolon are indie rock punctuation marks. They are not as popular as that period. They are not obvious and do not seek to please, like an exclamation point. They are not everywhere, like a comma. But colons and semicolons have passion . They are quirky, snobbish, and sometimes prickly. These punctuation marks I used before they were cool, like Jay and Michael Aston from Gene Loves Jezebel: they’re brothers, but not twins, and they don’t always get along.

How to use a colon correctly: two little dots that can say so much

The colon has several awkward uses. It introduces an element or list, separates closely related independent sentences, introduces longer quotations, and introduces bulleted or numbered lists. It is also often used after greetings in more formal correspondence.

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

I didn’t get to the Sisters of Mercy show: I ran out of eyeliner.

In this usage, you can “read” the colon as something like “because” or “thus”.

Here’s what it looks like when a colon is used to represent a list:

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

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

A colon is often used after a speaker’s name to represent dialogue or a quote:

As John Darniel of The Mountain Goats said in Denton’s Best Death Metal Band, “When you punish a man for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank you or forgive you.”

When you quote something longer, use a colon. Do the same when you present a list that is numbered or uses bullets, as shown below:

Here is the track listing for Big Black’s original 1986 album Atomizer :

1) Jordan, Minnesota

2) Transient complexion

3) Big money

4) Kerosene

5) Bad houses

6) Fists of love

7) Stinky Drunk

8) Bazooka Joe

9) Strange things

10) Cables (Live)

People sometimes use a colon after a greeting in correspondence, notoriously after the phrase “To whom this may concern”. This usage was cool in the past, but now it seems too formal, trite, and zealous enough to be ironic.

Dear NME, I’m still angry at your lackadaisical review of The Stone Roses’ first album.

All cool people add spaces after the colon. Using a capital letter after a colon is not cool except in a few situations. If you are presenting a list, capitalize the first word after the colon only if it is a proper name.

If the second phrase after the colon can be a complete sentence, you don’t usually capitalize it, but some people argue that you can capitalize it if it’s a longer sentence. (Some people think the Pablo Honey album is better than OK Computer, but that doesn’t make them right.) [Editor’s Note: The site’s style is to capitalize individual phrases after a colon. Also, OK Computer is overrated.]

If you want to dig as deep into your colon as you dig into drawers at your local second-hand record store, think double colon. It looks like this: “::” and is used in analogies, for example, in SAT tests. When writing an analogy, instead of writing “W is to X the same way Y is to Z”, you can write “W : Z :: Y : Z”. As in the following analogy:

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

The double colon is also used in some programming languages, but I can’t tell you how to do it because I’m not a nerd.

How to Use Semicolons: We Should Probably Get Rid of Them Completely

The semicolon has three uses: linking independent but closely related sentences, concatenating allied sentences followed by a comma, and replacing commas in lists where a comma might be confusing. The semicolon is not used to link independent and dependent clauses like a colon or comma.

If periods are too common for you, you can use a colon or semicolon to separate two closely related independent clauses. When you’re trying to figure out what to use and when, it gets a little frustrating. This confusing state of affairs is partly due to the fact that the two tend to be used differently in the UK and the US , but in general the semicolon reads more colloquially. The colon is a little more formal. Compare the following:

It was the best show ever: the Galaxie 500 played with their original lineup.

It was the best show; The Galaxie 500 played with their original lineup.

Thin, right? But if you use semicolons, you should be comfortable with ambiguity.

Much becomes clearer when you use allied adverbs such as “moreover”, “nevertheless”, “however” and “also”. They must include a semicolon, as shown below:

She put in a Moby CD; hence, I asked her to leave my house.

The real highlight of the semicolon comes when you present a list, which can be confusing if you separate it with commas, as in the following example:

The members of Joy Division were Ian Curtis, vocals; Bernard Sumner, guitar and keyboards; Peter Hook, bass; and drummer Stephen Morris.

One last important note about colons

If you’re old enough to understand the musical references I make, you should schedule a colonoscopy every five years.


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