Using the Semicolon and Colon

Use the semicolon only occasionally. It can give your sentences some variety, but it should not be overused. Here are the three main uses of the semicolon:

  • Use the semicolon to join independent clauses (main clauses) that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction. (I enjoyed the physiology course; I learned more than I had expected.)
  • Use the semicolon to join independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb. (The entire class read the assigned chapter; however, some of the students did not understand the information.)
  • Use the semicolon to separate items in a series if those items contain a number of commas. (The custody case involved Nancy Adams, the child; Pat and Bill Adams, the parents; and Ruth and Edward Sherman, the maternal grandparents.)

The colon is usually used to introduce a list or an explanation. Do not use a colon more than once in a sentence. The sentence should end with the element introduced by the colon. Here are the four main uses of the colon:

  • Use the colon to introduce items in a series (The discount store sells three popular brands of watches: Fossil, Guess, and Seiko.)
  • Use the colon to introduce an explanation or amplification. (The college has one goal: to educate students to be responsible citizens.)
  • Use the colon to introduce a series or statement with the following or as follows. (In remote areas of this developing nation, simple signs of human habitation are as follows: a narrow dirt path, a few huts, smoke from a cooking fire.)
  • Use a colon if you introduce a long or formal quotation with a complete sentence. (By the mid-eighteenth century, paleontologists had reached a correct consensus: "Hysteroliths were internal molds of brachiopods.")

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