Colons and semi-colons

Punctuation is a challenging aspect of English writing, and many writers encounter problems using colons and semi-colons. However, there are a number of definite rules that can be followed to help ensure their correct usage in academic and formal writing.

The colon (:)

colons and semi-colons

There are six functions for the colon, which can be described in order of frequency as follows:

• A colon can present an explanation

E.g. The Caribbean is a popular diving destination: the water is exceptionally clear and the marine wildlife is diverse.

• A colon can introduce a list

E.g. We need to introduce the following measures: improved security, transparency and dialogue.

• A colon can introduce long passages of direct speech

E.g. The Chairman presented his opinions to the meeting: “It is clear that we need to invest heavily in infrastructure in order to compete in the current competitive climate. Firstly, ……………..”

• A colon can be used to create a subdivision in a heading or title

E.g. Punctuation: colons

Figure 12: The volume of traffic over a 24 hr. period

• After the initial salutation in a business letter (American English only)

Dear Mr. Phillips:

I am writing to you today in respect of ……………..

• Note that in British English it is unusual to place a capital letter after a colon, unless this is followed by a complete sentence

E.g. My concerns are as follows: Firstly, there are logistical constraints. Secondly, there are financial limitations. Thirdly, ……. .

The semicolon (;)

There are only two typical uses for the semi-colon in English:

• As a separator between sentences with close meaning, which creates a pause that is stronger than a comma but weaker than a full stop (particularly before conjunctions such as ‘however’, ‘therefore’, ‘nevertheless’, etc.)

E.g. Some of the employees decided to strike; however, this was not viewed favourably by the management.

Some students study better in the mornings; others prefer the afternoons.

• To separate longer more grammatically complex items in a list

E.g. You may enter the UK for study purposes provided that you have a valid student visa or are an EU citizen; that you are studying on a course at or above the National Qualification Framework level 3; that you study at least 15 hours per week in a recognised institution; …….. .

The importance of getting your colons and semi-colons right

It can be seen that there are really only a narrow range of uses for colons and semi-colons in written English. Nevertheless. their correct placement in texts suggests a more competent use of English punctuation, while particularly in academic submissions such as assignments, dissertations and thesis the correct use of colons and semi-colons is expected. This will not only improve your grade from a use of English perspective, but also ensure that your written discourse is bound together with the most appropriate punctuation markers.