Semicolons and Colons

Semicolons (;)

Semicolons must combine similar elements and are either used to combine complete sentences or items in a long, complicated list. Use semicolons in the following situations:

  • Combine two complete sentences that are closely related, when it would make sense for these sentences to be combined by “and.”

Example: It is hard to believe that such selfishness is viable; Tadeusz Borowski was one of those fortunate enough to survive and use his experience as a basis for his writing.

Example: I grew up in central Kentucky; I am definitely a University of Kentucky basketball fan.

  • Precede transition words like "however" and "therefore" when they combine two complete sentences. These transition words will need to be followed by a comma.

Example: I would like to double-major in English and Business; however, I don’t think that I will have enough time in my schedule to take all of those classes.

Example: The tornado began to head in Bill and Jo’s direction; consequently, they took shelter in a nearby barn.

  • Precede phrases like "for instance" and "for example" when they combine a complete sentence and a list. These phrases should then be followed by a comma.

Example: Several different citation styles are used in academics; for instance, APA, MLA, Chicago, and AMA.

  • Separate items in a complicated list, to prevent confusion when commas appear within the items in the list. The reader may become confused as to where one item ends and the other begins. They are used in place of the normal commas and come before the conjunction combining the list.

Example: Much of this information could be added to Policy 711 by including the following sections from the Student Handbook: “Hearing Types” with its discussion of the hearing committees and hearing types for nonacademic violations; “Hearing Procedures”; “University Sanctions” that discusses disciplinary findings, the notification of findings, and the different types of punishment for nonacademic misconduct; “Judicial Procedures” for addressing nonacademic misconduct; and “Appeal Procedures.”

Example: The dental hygienist cleans teeth; the receptionist answers the phone, makes appointments, files patient records and verifies insurance coverage; and the office manager handles customer complaints.

Colons (:)

Colons are used mostly to introduce or emphasize a word, list, phrase, or sentence. Use colons in the following situations:

  • Combine two complete sentences when the second sentence completes, explains, or illustrates an idea in the first sentence. If you can mentally insert "namely," "that is," or "in fact" between the two sentences, it is acceptable to combine them with a colon.

Example: Water refill stations should be installed at all universities: refill stations encourage reusable water bottles and are healthier for the environment.

  • Introduce a list at the end of the sentence. Generally, a complete sentence must precede this colon. This can be done by inserting a phrase like “the following.”

Example: The study of linguistics includes these three areas: phonology, morphology, and syntax.

Example: Pacman’s enemies have the following nick names: Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde.

  • Introduce direct quotations at the end of a sentence. In this case, the sentence before the colon does not have to be complete.

Example: She only gives in to marrying Rochester because of Richard’s threats: “ ...she had given way, but coldly, unwillingly, trying to protect herself with silence and a blank face” (Rhys 82-83).

Example: Purcell-Gates (1997) explains: “[Children] begin to learn about reading and writing from birth, in their homes and communities, as they observe others using print for various real life purposes and as they begin to ‘join in’ these activities and experiment with their own forms of reading and writing” (p. 404).

  • Introduce block quotations. In this case, the sentence before the colon does not have to be complete.

Example: His final paragraph is moving and combines one last compliment of Dickinson with one last topic of wonder:

Something with an unheard-of brilliance and purity had come to an end, and something public, derivative, and dependent on a world of stumbling readers had begun. We may suspect the poet would have seen her lasting fame as a contemptible substitute for the limitlessness and perfection she had spent her life thinking about. But it doesn’t look as if we are going to find out. (Habegger 629)

Proofreading Tip

Use Microsoft Word to search and find the colons in your document. Check that the sentence before the colon is complete. If the sentence is not complete, add in a phrase like "the following."

Example: Students in grade school must purchase the following: notebooks, folders, pencils, pens, rulers, glue, tape, markers, and colored pencils.

Howe Center for Writing Excellence logo