Monday, January 05, 2009

Editing Tip of the Week: The Colon and the Semicolon

When a period or a comma just won't do, the semicolon or the colon can usually get the job done. The semicolon can function as either one, but The Chicago Manual of Style states that its use is closer to that of the period. The main use of a semicolon is to join two independent clauses not linked by a conjunction, as in The evening plans unexpectedly changed; we went bowling instead of out to dinner.

The semicolon is also used to separate items in a series that involve internal punctuation. The Daily Writing Tips Web site offers a good example of this use with the sentence We learned the basics of grammar, punctuation, and spelling; the ins and outs of brainstorming and getting started; and how to take notes in an interview.

The colon functions like a semicolon, but it places a stronger emphasis on what has preceded the colon, as in a sentence like She was sure of one thing: he was guilty.

One thing to keep in mind is that while the semicolon and colon can assume the roles of a comma or period, the two are not substitutes for each other. For example, a semicolon precedes adverbs such as hence, indeed and therefore. A colon wouldn’t work in this way.

For more examples and uses of semicolons and colons, visit and

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