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Some people think these are old-fashioned punctuation marks but, if you use them correctly, they can greatly enhance the flow of your writing. Both marks indicate a pause. Use the look of the mark to help you remember that a colon is visually closer to a full stop, and therefore a longer pause, while a semi-colon is closer to a comma. Once you have understood the difference, you should no longer put them in the wrong places.


A semi-colon extends a pause; a colon delivers the promised goods.





While writing this piece, I found this absolute nugget of a description in Fowler’s Modern English Usage. A colon is designed to:

deliver[ing] the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words.


It’s a perfect explanation of all the uses of a colon in modern writing: to introduce a list, an explanation, a quote or an example; to replace a comma before direct speech. In each case, the text following the colon gives you the details required by the text before it.

The book she was reading was dull: complex, erudite and designed for reference. However, hacking through the rocks that made up the text, she discovered

a golden nugget: the concise explanation that she had been seeking.

She couldn’t help exclaiming aloud: ‘That is just perfect!’





A semi-colon has quite a different role. A longer pause than a comma but shorter than a full stop, it links two clauses or sentences that have a closer relationship than would be demanded by a full stop.

She thought long and hard about whether she could come up with anything better; clearly that was not going to happen!

No wonder this book was a classic; this single gem proved it.


In the same way that the serial comma can be used to clarify a simple list (see Commas), a semi-colon can also be used to clarify a complex list.

There were so many things to consider when writing about punctuation:

clarity for the reader; accuracy; relevance to modern writing;

and the addition of a little humour to help people remember the principles.


So your reminder is:

A semi-colon extends a pause; a colon delivers the promised goods.


Colons and semi-colons


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