Colons and semi-colons – Know the difference

Posted on October 16, 2014 in Editing/Proofreading, Training

If you are unsure about when to use colons and semi-colons, you are not alone.  In fact, getting colons and semi-colons muddled is one of the commonest mistakes I encounter when editing books.  

Yes, the two are similar – both occur midway through a sentence – but they should be used in very different places.

Here are my simple rules to guide you…

Colons

  • main useage – Where you want to explain or give an example of something you have just written.  Hence, academics use them quite a lot.  They can be ‘translated’ into the words namely/that is to say, i.e. they expand on the prior sentence.  For example, The business has had its best year ever: profits are up 45%. 
  • other uses – in ratios (2:1), in some film/book titles (e.g. Business Writing Skills: Everything you need to know), but also to introduce long quotations, and (sometimes) lists and direct speech.
  • NOTE: either side of the colon is dependent on the other, which is not the case with semi-colons.

Semi-colons

  • main useage – For example, They are used to instead of full stops; they connect two clauses that are so connected there is no need for a full stop, but a comma would provide too short a break (as in that sentence!).  They can be ‘translated’ into the words and/but.
  • other uses – used instead of commas in lists of items where the items take several words to describe.  And if you are using ‘nevertheless’, ‘furthermore’ or ‘moreover’ midway through a sentence, you will need a semi-colon beforehand to provide a longish break from what preceded it.  For example,  It has been a great financial year; moreover, sales forecasts for next year look very strong

I hope that helps.

Not too difficult was it!