Differences between Colons and Semicolons
To sharpen up your English-language writing skills, a sound knowledge of the differences between colons and semicolons is recommended. These punctuation marks may appear similar, but their respective purposes are distinct, and mixing them up can bring confusion.
To outline some important differences between colons and semicolons, concise guides to both are provided below.
Essentially, the colon introduces or defines something.
“Canada is made up of the following ten provinces: Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Saskatchewan.”
“The main problem for Africa at that time was obvious: famine.”
In the latter example, the colon could be replaced with a comma and the word “namely” and it would still make sense; however, the colon here adds greater emphasis to the problem being introduced.
Mathematicians will also be familiar with the colon being used in various technical contexts such as time (10:45) and ratios (20:1).
On the other hand, the semicolon has one prominent purpose: to combine two already complete sentences that are closely connected.
“It was one of the driest summers on record in the region; the lack of rainfall did not bode well for the harvest.”
Here, a full stop could replace the semicolon to create two sentences, which would still be grammatically acceptable. Likewise, replacing the semicolon with the word “and” would be fine.
The semicolon however allows the writer to demonstrate to the reader the tightness of the connection between the first and second parts. It also instructs the reader to take a short pause, thus ensuring that the sentence is given the due time and consideration.
Crucially, for a semicolon to be appropriate, both sentences being combined must already be complete (as is the case in the dry summer example above).
The following is an example of a semicolon wrongly applied, because the first part is not a complete sentence:
“In the wake of an economic downturn; unemployment soared to a record high.”
The semicolon is sometimes inserted before the words ‘however’, ‘otherwise’ and ‘therefore’. For instance:
“Invitations had gone out to over 100 people; however, only a handful of guests showed up.”
Another example of appropriate semicolon usage is to clearly separate things in complex lists (introduced first by a colon of course!).
“Various golfing legends were due to attend such as: Padraig Harrington, two-time winner of the Open Championship; Peter Alliss, legendary BBC commentator; and Bernard Gallacher, European Ryder Cup captain from 1991 to 1995.”
For further detail on the differences between colons and semicolons, we recommend reading the University of Sussex’s guidance on the subject.
Reading this blog post will hopefully have sharpened your knowledge of two commonly used punctuation marks: colons and semicolons.